TRENTON, N.J. — Under pressure from big investors and analysts to make a bold move, beleaguered drugmaker Pfizer appears to have one in the works with reported talks to buy smaller rival Wyeth for $60 billion.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the companies have been in talks for months, but said any deal is far from completion and the state of the global markets could undo any plans. Neither company was talking Friday.
If a deal goes through, the world's biggest drugmaker would see its revenue jump 50 percent and its profit climb, would vault into a premier position in two areas it's been coveting, biotech drugs and vaccines, and could slash costs with another round of job cuts in areas with significant overlap, from administration to research.
What are the chances a deal will close?
"I'd say maybe better than 50-50," said analyst Les Funtleyder of Miller Tabak & Co.
Analysts say Pfizer, the maker of impotence drug Viagra and overactive bladder treatment Detrol, needs to do something dramatic to compensate for a revenue crash starting in November 2011. That's when the world's top-selling drug, $13 billion-a-year cholesterol fighter Lipitor, is ex-pected to face generic competition.
At $60 billion, a deal between Pfizer and No. 12 drugmaker Wyeth would be slightly less than the $66 billion Sanofi-Aventis merger from August 2004.
Coincidentally, $60 billion is the same price Pfizer paid for its last big acquisition, Pharmacia Corp., in April 2003, said Erik Gordon, biomedical analyst and professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.
"Part of this is a financial trick," he added. Wyeth has much more debt than Pfizer proportionally, he said, and under complex but standard accounting practices, the combination would boost Pfizer's earnings per share, possibly by 20 to 30 cents per share.
"That obviously isn't driving the deal, but it's a bonus," Gordon said.
Analysts said Friday that getting financing could be a big hurdle — it would have to be a cash-and-stock deal, with Pfizer still likely to have to borrow billions — and the Federal Trade Commission might require the companies to divest some products.
Pfizer Chief Executive Jeff Kindler, on the job for two years, had to take drastic action to get the company out of its doldrums: flat revenue, little to show for its $7.5 billion in yearly research spending and the expected loss of more than 70 percent of its 2007 revenue by 2015.
Its run of iconic blockbusters — Viagra, Lipitor, antidepressant Zoloft, plus blood-pressure blockbuster Norvasc — is a fading memory and its research labs have been so unproductive that it closed its mammoth research lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., about a year ago, and now is laying off 800 more research staffers.
Lyrica for nerve pain and fibromyalgia is now a $2.5 billion-a-year product, but smoking cessation treatment Chantix hasn't lived up to expectations because of links to depression and suicidal thoughts.
Perhaps worst of all, its high-profile effort to come up with a Lipitor successor flamed out when torcetrapib had to be axed in late-stage testing because it triggered heart problems. Last fall, Pfizer publicly conceded that failure when it eliminated all new research on heart disease, the world's top killer.
Pfizer's stock price is barely one-third of its July 2000 peak of $48.
Until now, the company has just been tinkering, cutting staff here, closing plants there and trimming its research portfolio.
Acquiring Wyeth would transform Pfizer almost overnight from primarily a pure pharmaceutical company into a broadly diversified health care giant, given Wyeth's huge presence and revenue in biotech drugs, vaccines including the blockbuster pneumococcal vaccine Prevnar, veterinary medicines and consumer health products from Advil to Robitussin.
Biotech drugs, produced in living cells, are seen as hot commodities these days because they generally command high prices and have little to no risk of generic competition.
Wyeth's offerings include blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel (sold jointly with Amgen Inc.), and hemophilia treatments Refacto, BeneFIX and Xyntha.
So is absorbing Wyeth Pfizer's best option? Analysts are all over the map on that issue.
"Such an acquisition makes strategic and financial sense," wrote Credit Suisse analyst Catherine Arnold, who has been supporting such a move since last March.
"This deal would instantly make (Pfizer) a top-tier biologics player."
Steve Brozak of WBB Securities was more critical. "This is a fix for the next 12 to 18 months. This still doesn't resolve the fundamental flaw in the large-pharma model," he said.