Monday, April 9, 2012

Carl Icahn: net positive or negative for the biotech industry?

I can't decide if Carl Icahn's activism in the biotech sector is a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, his insight, activism, and capital drives stock appreciation in the biotech sector. (And even just his interest in the sector is a good thing.)

On the other hand, no one is more responsible for making mid-cap biotechs an endangered species.

I first looked at this five years ago on the Xcovery blog (Wanna scare a CEO? Just say these 7 words: "Mr. Icahn is holding on line 2.") At the time, Icahn was agitating for the sale of MedImmune, and had recently bagged ImClone. Since then, he's a had a big influence in the sale of Genzyme, and made runs at Biogen and Forest Labs. BIIB and FRX raids did not conclude with a company sale, but both companies had bumps in stock values due to Icahn, and a big profit for Icahn.

Now Carl Icahn is chasing Amylin.

On my old blog I listed 10 reasons why Icahn's interest may be a net positive, and they're worth another look:

1. Interest by corporate raiders validates the biotech industry as viable businesses, rather than a collection of high-risk experiments.

2. Raider interest will attract other sources (non-alternative investments) of capital sends the message that biotech may be volatile, but not necessarily risky. (As opposed to the current notion that biotech is risky, but not necessarily volatile.)

3. Corporate raiders will keep biotech more slim and agile versus big pharma. (Though I've heard rumblings that some hedge fund could take down a pharma one of these days, so maybe this edge won't hold for long.)

4. Raiders force target companies to focus on "what's next," rather than complacently focusing on the sales and marketing of existing products.

5. Raiding will bring about needed consolidation among mid-sized biotechs, as the raiders view the overhead for companies at this size as a bad investment.

6. Raiders will increase the amount of business discipline within the industry. (And likely instigate management turnover, which could also be management evolution.)

7. Raiders will increase attention on the biotech industry.

8. Biotech has (and probably will always be) a game of capital raising. Raiders will bring more capital to the biotech industry, though the capital will tend to be higher-velocity.

9. Attention to financial returns by biotechs will increase among industry folks, as raider interest is in part related to the very high margins earned by biotechs. The high margins decrease risk for raiders, and can generate large amounts of incremental cash to justify raider transactions, if the margins are believed to be improvable.

10. Raiders (and other private equity types) may innovate new vehicles to finance biotech. One of these 'innovations' is quite old, but new to the biotech industry: dividends. (Icahn, in particular, often presses target boards to increase their dividend to drive stock prices.)

In retrospect, I think the label "raider" is harsh and inaccurate - Icahn certainly has high short term expectations, but I think he's also well-intentioned, trying to find the best home for at-risk, underperforming assets. He's not squeezing companies to cut staff to take more cash out of a target, or leaving behind half-dead Zombie companies, but rather hastening the process of smaller company selling out to big.

However, as a result, there are less small-to-mid biotech's left, meaning there's a "lost generation" of companies that could aggressively or reasonably re-invest in early-stage biotech, thus having the knock-on effect of impeding early biotech. (Historically, mid-cap companies have been less risk-averse than big pharma when it comes to partnering with smallish/early biotech. Plus, focusing on fending off Icahn's advances takes attention and capital away from planting partnership "seeds," and may make a mid-cap less attractive to a potential partner.)

The counter-argument that Icahn might make is that capital gains from his activities generate more capital to be invested in the biopharma sector at all stages. I think, though, that the law of supply & demand trumps all: reducing the number of potential "buyers" of early stage tech (i.e. GENZ, IMCL, etc.) drives the prices down on such tech/leads.

There's one other way to look at this that is very much to Icahn's credit: economic impact. Since selling MEDI to AZN, MEDI's footprint in Maryland (MEDI's home) is much, much larger, as they've become AZN's biologics center of excellence (CoE), and it seems that GENZ is also likely to similarly expand in Boston as a CoE for Sanofi. If Icahn's activism provided purely return on capital (rather than labor or assets), you'd see talent and IP sucked up into the corporate parent, and a diminished physical presence as the acquirer cut costs. This was pretty much the case with IMCL, but that might be a factor of Lilly's management style, as much as anything else. (An entrepreneurial NYC company and a starchy midwest giant don't make for a great pairing.)

Ultimately, your opinion of Icahn's impact in the biotech world likely depends on who you are. If you're a shareholder at a target company, you like him a lot. If you're an executive at a target company, you definitely wish he'd go away.

Finally, while this post is centered on Carl Icahn, it is important to note who else has been a key player on Team Icahn, and now on his own: hedge fund manager Alex Denner, who is credited with generating $2B in profits (or is it value?) while chasing under-appreciated biotech stocks, mostly with Icahn.

related: Amylin (AMLN) management: BUSTED!

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