What's AZ's new CEO thinking? Let's parse his words

The best one can say about AstraZeneca's ($AZN) third quarter is that earnings weren't as bad as analysts had expected. Sales, however, dropped by 19% to a worse-than-expected $6.68 billion, thanks to an 83% plunge in Seroquel IR sales. And with Nexium's U.S. patent expiration looming, incoming CEO Pascal Soriot has plenty to keep him busy.

Indeed, the pharma sales declines were impressive. Seroquel's swan dive stopped at $169 million, down $856 million. Atacand slid by 34% to $221 million. Nexium, which has lost exclusivity in some European markets and in Japan, dropped by 6% to $995 million. Even Crestor, now AZ's biggest selling brand, slid by 3%, to $1.54 billion. Overall, sales dropped by 15%, a loss of $1.2 billion-plus.

How to stem the tide? That's what everyone wants to know--and that's what Soriot can't yet say. It's true that he's barely warmed up the chair in his new office, and he's never wavered from a promise to let us all in on a new strategy in January. But his circumspection has folks reading vague statements as if they're tea leaves.

The clot-fighting drug Brilinta can do "far better," he said during the third-quarter earnings call; "I still think there is time to correct course," he added (as quoted by Reuters). Translation: Brilinta sales push, perhaps?

To bolster the company's mid-term pipeline, he'll have to "rely on business development activities, there is no question about it." Translation: M&A ahead.

Would he consider diversifying as rivals have done? AstraZeneca's "core is in innovation, and will remain so," Soriot said (as quoted by Dow Jones). Translation: He's walking a fine line, keeping options open.

For the horse's mouth version, we'll have to wait a few months. AstraZeneca says the strategy update will come in late January.

- read the AZ release (PDF)
- get more from Reuters
- see the Dow Jones coverage

Special Reports: AstraZeneca - The Biggest R&D Spenders In Biopharma | AstraZeneca - Top 10 Pharma Layoffs of 2012 | Crestor - The 15 best-selling drugs of 2012