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Investing in the Pharmaceutical Industry

November 30, 2020 · 9 minute read

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Investing in the Pharmaceutical Industry

The pharmaceutical industry, with more than $1.2 trillion in global sales a year, offers many opportunities for investors. Some pharma stocks come with good dividends, while others have potential for significant growth. Investing in pharmaceuticals not only has upside but helps expand health care for people around the world.

But as with any industry, pharmaceutical stocks have risks, and investors would be wise to research each company before they buy stock.

Here is key information about the industry and some ways to find pharmaceutical stocks.

An Intro to the Pharmaceutical Industry

Pharmaceutical companies research, develop, make, and sell medications, including preventive medicines, treatments, and vaccines.

Two segments of therapeutics make up the industry: pharmaceuticals and biologics. It’s also important to know the difference between pharmaceutical stocks and biotech stocks.

Pharmaceutical drugs are tablets or pills made out of synthetic or plant-based chemicals. Because they are small and fairly easy to make, companies can produce hundreds of thousands of them. When drugs are first approved, they generally have a patent or market exclusivity, meaning that only the pharma company that developed them can manufacture and sell the drugs.

Once the patent or exclusivity ends, other companies can create generic forms of the drug and begin to compete with the pharma company. The generic drugs are chemical copies of the original drug but sell at lower prices, making it hard for the original pharma company to compete. This can lead to its stock losing value.

Biologics are products such as vaccines, gene therapies, and medications for blood disorders that are large, protein-based molecules made out of living cells. Biologics are more complex to manufacture, one reason that makes them more expensive.

They also have tighter restrictions on distribution than pharmaceuticals do. These factors make it more challenging for companies to enter this space and for competitors to succeed. If competitors do create a similar product, it is called a biosimilar. Unlike generics, biosimilars aren’t interchangeable, so biologics don’t have the same stock drop-off that pharmaceuticals do.

Biotech companies use bacteria, enzymes, and other living organisms to develop drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies make drugs using chemicals, which may be synthetic or plant-based.

It takes about 10 years and an average of $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion to bring a new drug to market, but in special circumstances the FDA can expedite approval.

Why Invest in Pharmaceuticals?

With pharmaceuticals, whether investors are looking for high growth potential, long-term value, or stable dividends, they can find a pharma stock that will fit the bill. There are hundreds of early-stage and established stocks, mutual funds, and exchange-traded funds out there.

About 3.65 million Americans turn 65 every year, according to the AARP. And by 2030, the country will have more residents 65 and older than children, the Census Bureau has projected.

This means more people needing health care and pharmaceutical drugs, which in turn is expected to make pharma stocks grow. U.S. health spending is projected to grow by about 5.4% annually from 2019-28 and reach $6.2 trillion by 2028, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Pharmaceutical stocks don’t always follow the same trends as other stocks, because people need medications no matter what is going on in the market. This doesn’t mean that pharma stocks always perform better than the broader market, but sometimes they don’t follow the same lines. Certain pharmaceutical ETFs, such as the SPDR S&P Pharmaceuticals ETF, have historically performed quite a bit better than the S&P 500 Index.

The health care sector can perform well during tough economic times, since people always need health care no matter what is going on in the world. About 70% of American adults ages 40 to 79 report having used at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so the companies that make those drugs consistently earn revenue even when the rest of the stock market is down.

Larger companies have fairly consistent income streams, while smaller companies that show promise get funding from investors and sometimes get acquired by larger companies.

A few other reasons pharmaceutical stocks look promising as a long-term investment are:

•  People are living longer, and the majority of elderly Americans take prescription medications. The longer people live, the more years they will be paying for those drugs.
•  The health care sector is expanding in countries outside the United States.
•  The government has been spending more on health care research.
•  New types of therapies, such as gene therapy, are getting more sophisticated. Some of these are very expensive.

How to Choose Pharmaceutical Stocks

With so much potential in pharma, it can be difficult to navigate the hype and figure out what’s really a good investment. Billions of dollars are invested in medical research and drugs each year. In fact, about $180 billion is expected to be invested in the industry between 2019 and 2022. But not every company becomes a success.

As with any stocks, investors will want to research pharma stocks before buying. Here are a few key factors to look at when researching pharma stocks.

Growth Prospects

By looking at a company’s earnings and revenue, one can see how much it has been growing and whether growth is slowing down. Investors can also look into each company’s pipeline to see how close to market a drug being developed is. Pharma companies have to go through certain steps to develop, test, and get drugs approved. They often make pipelines available to the public, so investors can see which drugs are in the early stages of development, preclinical testing, going through clinical trials in humans, or getting FDA approval or other necessary regulatory approvals.

Drugs may get approval for treatment of certain diseases or for specific demographics, but the makers can then apply for approval for additional uses. If they get the expanded approval, this can lead to growth for the company.

Knowing when to buy stocks is challenging, and trying to time the market generally isn’t a good strategy, but investors can follow different pharmaceutical companies to see when they have the potential to grow and become successful.

If a pharma company has patents that are close to expiring, this may slow down growth, as competitors can create generic forms of the same drugs.

The process companies go through to develop and bring drugs to market generally goes as follows:

•  Drug discovery. During this phase, drugs and the diseases they can potentially treat are discovered.
•  Preclinical trials. Potential drugs get tested in test tubes or on live animals.
•  Clinical trials. Small human trials determine a safe dosage and how humans react to it. Then groups of 100 or more people test the drug to discover short-term side effects and optimal dosage. Finally, groups of hundreds or thousands of people test the drug to determine efficacy and safety. When drugs reach the clinical trial stage, this could be a good time for investors to keep an eye on them. If a drug makes it through trials, the company has potential for significant growth, but if the drug fails during testing, the stock is unlikely to do well.
•  Regulatory approval. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research assesses and approves new drugs, and in the EU approval is completed by the European Medicines Agency. If the benefits of the drug outweigh the side effects and risks, and the drug is a good alternative or additional treatment for the disease it is targeting, these agencies will consider approving the drug.

Types of FDA Application

There are different types of pharmaceutical FDA applications, some of which give companies more potential for stock growth than others. The application types are:

•  Investigational new drug application: This is the first application step companies must go through.
•  New drug application: This is an application to market and sell a new drug. Companies filing this application have the most potential for stock growth because they are introducing a new product to market.
•  Abbreviated new drug application: Companies developing a generic form of an existing drug go through this application.
•  Therapeutic biologics application: This is required under the PHS Act for biologics.
•  Over-the-counter drug application: This is for companies looking to sell OTC drugs, which are categorized as being safe to distribute without a prescription.


Not all pharmaceutical companies pay dividends, but some of them do provide consistent payouts to investors. The dividends can add up. About one-third of the total returns from the SPDR S&P Pharmaceuticals ETF come from dividend payments.

Qualitative and Quantitative Metrics

The same rules apply to pharmaceutical stocks as to any other stock when it comes to evaluation. Investors should look at a company’s valuation, revenues, growth, leadership team, product pipeline, and other key metrics to decide whether to invest. Stock evaluation ratios such as price-to-earnings and price-to-earnings-growth ratios are very useful when comparing different stocks within the same industry.

However, some pharmaceutical companies are not yet profitable if they are in the drug development and trial phases. In this case, investors can look at the rate of cash burn: how much money the company is spending each quarter to develop a drug. It’s very expensive to develop a drug, so if a company is burning through cash and doesn’t have much left to work with, this might not bode well for the stock.

Another useful metric to look at is the price-to-sales ratio. This compares a company’s sales to the price of its stock. If the company doesn’t have sales yet, investors can make predictions about what those sales figures might look like.

Trends and Developments

Over time, trends in the types of diseases being targeted and the types of therapies being developed change. Investors can look into stocks in popular areas of treatment to find stocks with growth potential.

Many drugs are in development to treat breast cancer and non-small-cell lung cancer. The treatments bringing in the most revenue globally are oncologics, antidiabetics, respiratory therapies, and autoimmune disease drugs, according to Statistica . Other lucrative treatment areas include antibiotics, anticoagulants, pain, and mental health.

Risks of Investing in Pharmaceutical Stocks

As with any type of investment, pharma stocks come with some risks. Some of the main risks to be aware of are:

•  Clinical failure. Many drugs don’t make it through the phases of clinical trials. If a drug has made it to the final stage, it’s more likely to succeed, but even at this phase drugs can fail.
•  Inability to obtain approval. Just because a drug does well in trials doesn’t mean it will be approved by regulatory agencies.
•  Difficulties getting reimbursement and pricing drugs. Health insurance companies, government programs, or individuals must cover the cost of drugs, and companies aren’t always able to secure the money they need. Sometimes companies are pressured to lower the price of drugs to make them more accessible, and this can result in financial struggles for the company.
•  Industry competition. As mentioned above, when patents run out, pharma companies can struggle to keep up with competitors that develop cheaper generic versions of drugs. In addition, during the drug development phase it’s not uncommon for multiple companies to be working on medications to treat the same illness. If one company can make it to trials or get approval first, this can put them way ahead of the competition, especially if it results in patent exclusivity.
•  Litigation and liability. In the pharmaceutical industry, lawsuits are common, and drugs can also be recalled from the market if they’re found to be unsafe.

Investing in Pharmaceutical Stocks

If you’re looking to start investing in the pharmaceutical industry, one great way is to buy pharmaceutical ETFs. Or do your due diligence and choose individual stocks, aiming for stable dividends or growth potential.

Online platforms are a great tool for investing in ETFs and other stocks. SoFi Invest® offers a suite of tools to track favorite stocks, select individual stocks, buy fractions of stocks, or buy into ETFs.

Start making fee-free trades in minutes with SoFi Invest.

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