I recently watched “The Wolf of Wall Street” on DVD with my wife and was struck by two things.
One, of course, was its well-earned status of apparently having the most uses of the F-word in a non-documentary film.
The other thing that struck me was how much it reminded me of the 1987 film “Wall Street.” Not in terms of plot, mind you, but rather tone. Although Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2013 portrayal of real-life Jordan Belfort, who engaged in securities fraud, was not Michael Douglas’ fictional Gordon Gekko, a corporate raider who liked to buy up companies and then sell them off in pieces, there is a very strong similarity in terms of their hunger to acquire.
I’ll stay away from the term “greed” despite Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech because that’s subjective; also, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of how I feel about Big Pharma companies, since that’s what I’m leading into.
My viewing of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and thoughts about “Wall Street” have coincided, you see, with a busy period of merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in the world of pharma/biotech. The fact is, I’m not sure I like the continuing trend of big M&A deals. I’m not so concerned about young and ambitious companies being bought up, as they often want to be, but the acquisition of big (or relatively big) pharma companies by other big pharma companies concerns me.
Obviously, it’s happened many times before over the couple decades or so I’ve been a journalist. And clearly, it provides juicy fodder for the pages of this magazine. But it concerns me on a fundamental level. How many more of these deals will we see? How few large pharmas will we be left with?
And with the motivations lately often being tax advantages of being domiciled in a different country or filling struggling pipelines or shoring things up so that you can break up your company more profitably later—among other bottom-line issues—I worry whether Big Pharma is going to be a leader in research and development.
Or will such companies abandon the science to scoop up and absorb others who are focused on the “R” part of R&D?
Last issue, we saw serious multibillion-dollar M&A action involving Sun Pharmaceutical and Ranbaxy Laboratories and also Mallinckrodt and Questcor Pharmaceuticals. Then there was Horizon Pharma and Vidara Therapeutics with more than a half-billion on the table. Less dramatic but still notable was Bio-Rad and GnuBIO.
A couple issues before that, in March, we reported on Actavis looking to buy Forest Laboratories for $25 billion, right after Forest had itself acquired Aptalis for almost $3 billion.
And this issue in your hands right now?
Pfizer’s unsolicited, ambitious and big-money—but ultimately unsuccessful—attempt to acquire AstraZeneca and Valeant going after Allergan. Nothing new about Valeant driving its growth inorganically, but along with the other deals, this all has my head reeling. Also this issue, an innovative asset swap instead of a traditional M&A, between GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis, that has me questioning all those other deals to acquire and absorb.
I think that in M&As, what you often end up with is not the sum of the parts or something more than the sum of the parts. In fact, I think in the long run that many of these deals often cause things to be lost—be they jobs, research focuses, momentum on certain pipeline items or just plain drive to be the best at R&D.
To me, Big Pharma has always evoked a spirit of tackling big challenges. I fear, though, that the continuing drive to satisfy stockholders and manage the bottom line might make them something less like the idealistic but still ambitious Bud Fox played by Charlie Sheen and more like Gekko, the mentor who let him down over the lure of dollars.
I know Big Pharma sometimes needs to channel their inner Gekko. I just hope they don’t forget the Fox in the process.