Prophets of profit

Yesterday I wrote:

So the most probable outcome of introducing monopsony power here [in the U.S.] is that the market for drugs shrinks to the point where it will support few-to-no new drugs.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Tom responded:

This seems crazy.

He is not the only one for whom this seems a little nuts. But it is not. Let me explain.

People who think that there will be continuing R&D in the pharmaceutical industry are basically thinking of it as a budgeting problem. They think of the pharmaceutical industry's gross income as a budget to be allocated between various functions, such as marketing and R&D. They may concede that by changing the size of the budget, you may shrink the amount of money to fund R&D, because there will be less money in the kitty. (Though many or most hope that shrinking the size of the pie will force pharmaceutical companies to transfer money from the advertising budget to R&D1). But, their reasoning goes, there will still be money in the kitty; if you allow pharmaceutical companies 1/3 as much gross income, you will get 1/3 as much R&D. Or perhaps they will cut their advertising budgets to zero, and then you will get 2/3 as much R&D. But still, you will get something.

I don't think of R&D as a budgeting problem; I think of it as an investment problem. After all, even if the pharmaceutical industry has no profits right now, they can borrow the money in the financial markets at fairly attractive rates.

The main obstacle to R&D, then, is not the current state of pharmaceutical industry profits; it is the potential return on the investment in R&D. After all, Merck doesn't have to make drugs; it could generate a nice, safe return of 5% a year in government bonds. Or it could get into some other business, such as making soap. If you drive down the profits on new drugs too far, it stops making sense to invest in new drugs, even if there is a small profit to be made on current production.

Developing new drugs is very, very risky. Depending on what you think constitutes a drug candidate, somewhere between one in one thousand, and one in ten thousand drug candidates makes it from a lab bench to clinical trials. Each of the failed drugs was very expensive, particularly if it got partway through clinicals, which run about $500 million per course.

The problem is, once you've developed a drug, it's easy to copy. It's also usually trivially cheap to produce. And your patent is rapidly running out. This gives a monopsony buyer a lot of leverage to force down your price--you're almost always better off taking something. This is particularly true if the monopsony buyer has the power to break your patent and license its generic manufacturers to turn out cheap but near-perfect imitations of your product2. This is, in fact, what Europe has done; they make pharmaceutical firms sell to them at cost plus. The lion's share of the profits on any drug come from the United States; what they get in Europe and Canada and the rest of the world is (thin) gravy, a price that is just a little bit better than not selling any drugs there.

Now imagine that America drives drug prices down to that sort of "cost+10" or "cost+20" level. The pharmaceutical firms will keep making the drugs they already have, because there will still be a little profit there. But they would have to be psychotic to invest billions of dollars over a 20 year time horizon in exchange for a one in a thousand chance of making that small a profit. Would you put 20% of your income now into an investment that might yield a profit of 10% of your income--in thirty years?

But they have to invest in R&D, say my interlocutors; otherwise they won't have any drugs to sell! This makes the odd assumption that they can't do anything else. But history is full of companies that used to do something else entirely--and also, of companies that went out of business when their market collapsed.

1This belief is wrong, for reasons I will explain in another post.

2The patent threat seems to be the most plausible reason that pharmaceutical firms do not raise Canadian prices to US levels.