How the 8 biggest U.S. pharmas enriched their shareholders in 2019

Role of hundred dollar bills on other bills
With revenues in the tens of billions of dollars, some of the country's biggest pharmas have paid some serious change to enrich their investors. (Pixabay)

With tens of billions of dollars in sales pumping into their coffers each year, the world's largest publicly traded pharmaceutical companies can be extremely profitable investments for shareholders.

But impressive profits––and the welcome return on investment that comes with them––don't always translate into more innovation or long-term value. Megapharmas spend a lot of money each year investing in short-term returns for their shareholders—including executives—instead of investing more of those profits into R&D, critics note. 

For some, the U.S. corporate tradition of enriching shareholders through stock repurchases––or buybacks––and dividends is a short-term solution to a long-term problem: How can publicly traded companies best return value for investors?

In pharma, where companies split profit between their shareholders and potentially game-changing (and lifesaving) therapies, that short-term vision is even more problematic, said Ovid Therapeutics CEO Jeremy Levin, D.Phil. 

“A premium must be placed on new products and novel launches because if you don’t do that and you invest in buying back your stock instead of buying for your future, then you have satisfied the short term need for some shareholders but you have, in the long term, lost value,” Levin said.

Levin, a vocal opponent of the buyback tradition in pharma, said in January 2018 that drugmakers shouldn’t buy back “a single share” at the expense of pumping money into their pipelines. Despite chiding from insiders like Levin, though, the drug industry hasn't shown much interest in changing its ways.

RELATED: J&J, Merck and Pfizer spent tax savings on investor payouts, not R&D: Oxfam

After President Donald Trump’s signature Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was signed into law in 2017, four pharmas—Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer and Abbott Laboratories—invested a combined $7 billion in stock buybacks and dividends from the windfall, according to Oxfam. J&J alone received a reported $2.48 billion in combined tax breaks in 2018, equivalent to about 13.8% of the company’s profits.

In April 2018, a report from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s office found that five pharmas implemented $45 billion in buybacks shortly before and after the Trump tax cuts.

Pharma’s buyback obsession has leaked into biotech with around $100 billion spent on buybacks by the six largest biotech companies between 2014 and late 2018, Evaluate Pharma reported. Those figures pale in comparison to what Big Pharma and Big Biotech spent on R&D and M&A on the whole but are still a tough pill to swallow for patients looking for novel treatments—never mind the critics who urge drugmakers to forgo some of those profits to bring down U.S. drug prices.

“Today, better than 70% of the (pharma) pipeline comes from the biotech industry,” Levin said. “Under those circumstances, the growth of new technologies and new opportunities to invest has been phenomenal while the thinking of how you deal with shareholders remains much the same way it was in the '70s.”

In 2019, Big Pharma's fondness for quick shareholder payouts continued, with the eight biggest U.S. drugmakers topping $31 billion in stock buybacks in the first nine months of 2019. The amount of revenue each company pulled in didn't directly correlate with the amount each invested in buybacks and dividends. Take J&J, for instance: The world's largest drugmaker bought back $6.32 billion in stock in the first nine months of the year, but the second drugmaker on this list, Pfizer, actually topped the buyback list at $8.8 billion. 

But even smaller drugmakers have a penchant for investing heavily in their own stock. Amgen––No. 7 on our list––pulled in about a quarter of J&J's revenue in the first nine months but spent about $300,000 more in buybacks in that span at $6.61 billion. In the same time period the year before, Amgen dealt out a whopping $15.67 billion in buybacks. 

SPECIAL REPORT: The top 15 pharma companies by 2018 revenue

In creating our list, we targeted the largest U.S. drugmakers using our special report on the top 15 drugmakers by 2018 revenue as a guidepost. Instead of listing drugmakers by total buybacks and dividends––which can change dramatically from year to year––this special report underscores the counterintuitive reality that the biggest drugmakers are often not the most egregious investors in short-term shareholder returns.  

Because this list relies on company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission through the third quarter, companies headquartered abroad (which are not required to disclose third-quarter buybacks and dividends) are not included on this list.

That means multinational drugmakers like Roche, Novartis, Sanofi, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca didn't make the cut. However, half-year filings from some of those companies are interesting in their own right. Take GSK: As of July 30, the British drugmaker said it hadn't spent a dime on stock buybacks in the first half of the year. 

See anything on our list that we missed? Feel free to reach out to Associate Editor Kyle Blankenship with your thoughts. Email | Twitter

How the 8 biggest U.S. pharmas enriched their shareholders in 2019