Wall Street is, rightly, Covid-crazy these days.
With economies across the globe humbled by a pandemic no government has been able to control, investors are eagerly awaiting – and betting on – a variety of pharma firms to deliver the various Covid-19 vaccines on which they’re all independently working.
Perhaps none suck more oxygen than the vaccine candidates that AstraZeneca (AZN) and Moderna (MRNA) each have in development. The World Health Organization as of June had those two leading the pack in the race to produce the first, viable vaccine.
But for my money, I’d be watching Pfizer (PFE) – if only in terms of a risk-reward safety play.
First, Pfizer inked a deal with Uncle Sam to provide – free to consumers – 100 million doses of its vaccine, assuming the FDA ultimately approves it. For that, the Feds are coughing up roughly $2 billion to Pfizer and its vaccine-development partner, the German firm BioNTech (BNTX). The pair is also in talks with the European Union to supply millions of those doses across the continent. To that end, Pfizer/BioNTech expect to crank out some 1.2 billion vaccine doses in 2021.
Now, I’m no immunologist, but the data I’ve read seem to indicate Pfizer’s vaccine has meaningful potential in generating coronavirus antibodies – the holy grail in this mad dash to conquer the virus. Pfizer – along with Moderna – is now in final-stage testing of its vaccine and, assuming those tests are fruitful, the pharma giant expects to approach the FDA as soon as October to seek emergency authorization to produce and distribute the vaccine.
That could give Pfizer first-, maybe second-mover status – a good position to be in.
Second, there’s valuation.
In a word, Pfizer is cheap.
Pfizer Stock Ratings
At a time when the S&P trades near an oxygen-deprived P/E of 28 – and where many of the popular go-go tech stocks are magnitudes high – Pfizer’s puny trailing P/E of 13.7 is almost quaint, a throwback to a more-rationale age of investing.
Most of its high-flying Covid-attacking peers have no earnings. Many have negative book value, or are trading at multiples of book that are, frankly, hyperbolic and, thus, risky. Moderna, just to give one example, trades at 26.5 times book. Pfizer: less than 3.5 times book. That’s not to say Moderna is necessarily a bad investment, just that, after rising more than 280% so far this year, it’s trading on the thin edge of perfection. Any hint of a hurdle and a lot of those gains could well go poof.
Pfizer – not so much.
With profit margins exceeding 31%, return on assets at 9.5%, and ROE topping 24%, Pfizer’s one of the leaders of the pack in terms of profitability. And while its growth has certainly been sub-par of late, approval of its Covid vaccine would be a game-changer that sees Wall Street disregard the company’s -8.3% year-over-year revenue growth. A Covid vaccine alone could help Pfizer pocket $15 billion in sales, according to early estimates. That’s nearly 30% of the pharma firm’s $51.8 billion annual revenue haul. The Street would very quickly recalibrate Pfizer’s future, and very quickly re-price the shares higher – and, probably, markedly higher.
And this is where the safety factor comes in. Pfizer shares – down about 4% on the year – have played the role of tortoise to the hares that are Moderna, BioNTech, Inovio Pharmaceuticals (INO), Altimmune (ALT), and Novavax (NVAX) – all of which are up between 118% and nearly 2,900%.
Again, not saying those others are bad investments; they might well keep marching higher as their vaccines progress toward real-life deployment. But at a time when Wall Street itself is faces legitimate questions of serious overvaluation as the economy looks to turn down yet again, safety with potentially meaningful upside would seem to be the wiser Covid play.