Is it time to invest in biotech now that it is cheap?

Kanish Chugh

ETF Securities

After coronavirus vaccines made biotech the standout performer in 2020, the sector has faced a major reckoning this year. 

Source: S&P Global, ETF Securities. Data as of 7 December 2021.

Over the past year, the S&P 500 has delivered a return of 26%. Yet over the same period, the S&P Biotechnology Select Industry Index, which measures the US biotech sector on an equal weighted basis, is down 16%.

The underperformance has left many wondering what’s going on.

Underperformance owes to politics

Since Joe Biden won the presidential election, he has tried to make drugs more affordable. While these changes are forecast to have only a modest impact on biotech companies’ fundamentals, they have nonetheless affected the market.

Politics has been the primary driver of biotech underperformance. 

What are Biden’s changes? 

  1. Government to negotiate Medicare drug prices
  2. Tougher M&A oversight
  3. FDA commissioner absence

As part of the US$2 trillion infrastructure and climate bill Biden pushed through by Congress in November, the government will negotiate down the prices of older drugs purchased by Medicare. While these types of negotiation are common in other parts of the world, including Australia, the US has been unusual in the free hand it has given drug companies to set the prices it charges the government.

With the government negotiating some drug prices, biotech companies’ revenues are likely to be lower. However, they are unlikely to be significantly lower. Analysts cited by the Wall St Journal estimate that the bill will have a “very modest,” impact on the drug industry, with a total reduction in industry revenue of just 3% to 5%--which amounts to surrendering under one year’s growth.

Another reason for the selloff is the restrictions on mergers and acquisitions that Biden is placing across the healthcare sector. In a bid to increase competition, Biden is set to review hospital and pharmaceutical mergers a lot more closely. On this score, we have already seen a slowdown in M&A activity this year. 

Source: Evaluate. Data as of 1 August 2021

Tougher M&A oversight dampens the valuations of smaller biotech companies. This is because M&A activity – such as around patent cliffs – is a primary driver of their value. It may be this that most readily explains small cap biotech’s underperformance.

The final cause has been the power vacuum at the top of the Food and Drug Administration, the key industry regulator. The FDA has burned through eight commissioners since 2015. And from January to November 2021, there was no permanent commissioner (a new commissioner was only appointed in November, after several months without one). The vacuum at the top has created delayed drug reviews and, in some cases, confusing regulatory decisions.

Why we remain optimistic

Despite the political headwinds we remain optimistic about the prospects for biotech. Why are we optimistic? 

Three reasons:

  • Drawdowns greater than 30% have been common
  • The sector is currently cheap
  • Resemblance to the 2015-2016 crash
The first is simple history. Among biotech investors there has always been an understanding that “volatility is the price of admission”. Volatility can go both ways—up and down.

A look at the index history shows this. Looking at the 10-year history of the S&P Biotechnology Index, drawdowns greater than 30% have been common (graph below). In each previous instance, the index has recovered and in some instances, the large drawdowns were followed by periods of outperformance. However past performance is no guide to future returns. 

Source: S&P Global, ETF Securities. S&P Biotechnology Select Industry Index price returns over 10 years as of 7 December 2021.

Another reason for our optimism is that the sector now looks cheap. 

The S&P Biotech index is currently trading on a one year forward price-to-earnings ratio of just 11.6 as of 8 December 2021. This is roughly half the forward PE of the S&P 500 index, which is on a forward PE of 21.7 on the same date.

We should note that these low PE ratios owe not to biotech companies being cigar butts, with their best days behind them. Many of these cheap biotechs are at the bleeding edge of modern medicine. Some are inventing the cure to cancer (literally). While others are building out mRNA technology, the miracles of which we’ve seen with covid-19 vaccines.

A final reason for our optimism is that today’s drawdown bears a resemblance to the biotech crash in 2015-2016. 

After presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump criticised biotechs “price-gouging”, the index fell almost 50%. Yet in the five years that followed the index gained 284.2%. 

Simple access to biotech investing?

Would you like to get exposure to biotechnology? Click here to find out more about ETFS S&P Biotech ETF (ASX:CURE).


ETF
ETFS S&P Biotech ETF
Global Shares
........
Livewire gives readers access to information and educational content provided by financial services professionals and companies (”Livewire Contributors”). Livewire does not operate under an Australian financial services licence and relies on the exemption available under section 911A(2)(eb) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) in respect of any advice given. Any advice on this site is general in nature and does not take into consideration your objectives, financial situation or needs. Before making a decision please consider these and any relevant Product Disclosure Statement. Livewire has commercial relationships with some Livewire Contributors. ETFS Management (AUS) Ltd (AFSL 466778) (“ETFS”), is the responsible entity and issuer of units in the ETFS S&P Biotech ETF (ASX Code: CURE) ARSN: 628 037 105. The Product Disclosure Statement contains all of the details of the offer of units in the Fund. Any investment decision should only be considered after reading the relevant offer document in full. This document is communicated by ETFS. This document may not be reproduced, distributed or published by any recipient for any purpose. Under no circumstances is this document to be used or considered as an offer to sell, or a solicitation of an offer to buy, any securities, investments or other financial instruments and any investments should only be made on the basis of the relevant product disclosure statement which should be considered by any potential investor including any risks identified therein. This document does not take into account your personal needs and financial circumstances. You should seek independent financial, legal, tax and other relevant advice having regard to your particular circumstances. Although we use reasonable efforts to obtain reliable, comprehensive information, we make no representation and give no warranty that it is accurate or complete. Investments in any product issued by ETFS are subject to investment risk, including possible delays in repayment and loss of income and principal invested. Neither ETFS, ETFS Capital Limited nor any other member of the ETFS Capital Group guarantees the performance of any products issued by ETFS or the repayment of capital or any particular rate of return therefrom. The value or return of an investment will fluctuate and investor may lose some or all of their investment. Past performance is not an indication of future performance. Standard & Poor's S&P Indices are trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC. “S&P”, as used in the term S&P Biotechnology Select Industry Index, is a trademark of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC ("S&P") respectively, and has been licensed for use by ETFS. ETFS products are not sponsored, endorsed, sold or promoted by S&P, and S&P does not make any representation regarding the advisability of investing in ETFS products.

1 stock mentioned

1 fund mentioned

ETF Specialist & Head of Distribution
ETF Securities

Kanish Chugh is responsible for distribution covering sales and marketing strategy for institutional, intermediary and retail clients. He joined ETF Securities in 2015 and has previous experience with Fidelity International, BlackRock and...

I would like to

Only to be used for sending genuine email enquiries to the Contributor. Livewire Markets Pty Ltd reserves its right to take any legal or other appropriate action in relation to misuse of this service.

Personal Information Collection Statement
Your personal information will be passed to the Contributor and/or its authorised service provider to assist the Contributor to contact you about your investment enquiry. They are required not to use your information for any other purpose. Our privacy policy explains how we store personal information and how you may access, correct or complain about the handling of personal information.