Merck and Schering-Plough make their targets

So Merck and Schering-Plough are out today with some news that really gets attention these days: they beat their earnings forecasts. So, what on Earth could that mean?

Well, for one thing, both these companies (like nearly everyone else in the drug business) have been cutting costs like mad for the past year or so (for which read, mostly, shedding staff and closing facilities). And that seems to have worked, insofar as you can trust the numbers, or anyone's numbers. But there's only so far that that can take you: eventually, that slicing blade hits some vital tissue. You can't go on shutting things down and laying off people year after year, obviously. So while both companies did a good job of hitting their numbers this time, it's worth noting that they did so in spite of sales figures that weren't as good as either of them had been hoping for. So how much of this is due to one-time cost savings, and how big a worry are those sales?

Both companies have some things to worry about: Merck's Gardasil vaccine for cervical cancer has been big, but not quite as big as they'd been planning for. Singulair (for asthma) seems to have plateaued. And Merck has patent-protection problems - they lost Fosamax (for osteoporosis) last year, and Cozaar (cardiovascular) goes off patent in another two years. Schering doesn't have anything looming, but both they and Merck both have the well-publicized troubles with their Vytorin cholesterol medication to deal with. And that's a bigger percentage of S-P's sales, so it's hurt their stock correspondingly more.

Of course, both of them have interesting things coming along in their drug pipelines, too. So that takes us right back to the usual model of drug company finance: get as much money as you can out of your existing medications (wasting assets, all of them), while frantically bringing up things to replace them. Overall, both Merck and Schering-Plough are in better shape than many of their competitors in both of these categories, but the motto that should be carved over the door of every research lab in the industry is You Never Know. We've had an awful lot of big clinical failures the last few years in this business. (In fact, the fact that we've gotten better at eliminating some of the other causes of failure may well have led to an increase in late-stage disasters, taken as a percentage of the whole).

Drug stocks are traditionally supposed to be recession-proof, and today's announcements don't hurt that reputation. But what drug stocks are not is drug-proof. We still don't know which of our compounds will make it, or which ones will stay on the market once they have.