Why Large Cap Pharmaceuticals Will Hold Up in a Bear Market

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After over nine years of a rising stock market, we could be getting close to the end of the run. That does not ensure a bear market, and to be frank, most of the gains in the market, especially over the past three years, have been concentrated in a dozen or so stocks. Many of the top S&P 500 stocks are trading at bear market levels, meaning they are down 20% or more already.

One sector that almost always holds up well when the going gets tough is large-cap pharmaceutical stocks, and with good reason. Many combine a large prescription drug silo with numerous over-the-counter products that consumers purchase every day.

We screened the Merrill Lynch pharmaceutical research universe looking for dividend-paying stocks that are Buy rated. We found four that look like outstanding choices for worried investors to consider now.

AbbVie

This is one of the top pharmaceutical stock picks across Wall Street. AbbVie Inc. (NYSE: ABBV) is a global, research-based biopharmaceutical company formed in 2013 following separation from Abbott Laboratories. The company develops and markets drugs in areas such as immunology, virology, renal disease, dyslipidemia and neuroscience.

One of the biggest concerns with AbbVie is what might eventually happen with anti-inflammatory therapy Humira, which has some of the largest sales for a drug ever recorded. Last year the patent board instituted Coherus’s Inter Partes Review against the Humira ‘135 patent. The problem with Humira is that biosimilars and generics are itching to enter the market.

Most on Wall Street expect AbbVie to trade at a premium to its group as it settles U.S. patent disputes on Humira and its pipeline matures, with multiple data readouts on immunology, hematology and oncology assets to play out.

AbbVie shareholders are paid a rich 4.56% dividend. The Merrill Lynch price target for the shares is $106, and the Wall Street consensus target was last seen at $108.61. The stock closed trading on Wednesday $79.41 a share, down over 4% on the day.

Abbott Laboratories

This top pharmaceutical and med-tech stock has very solid growth potential. Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) manufactures and sells health care products worldwide.

The company’s Established Pharmaceutical Products segment offers branded generic pharmaceuticals to treat pancreatic exocrine insufficiency; irritable bowel syndrome or biliary spasm; intrahepatic cholestasis or depressive symptoms; gynecological disorders; hormone replacement therapy; dyslipidemia; hypertension; hypothyroidism; Ménière’s disease and vestibular vertigo; pain, fever and inflammation; migraines; anti-infective clarithromycin; cardiovascular and metabolic products; and influenza vaccines, as well as to regulate physiological rhythm of the colon.

Its Diagnostic Products segment provides immunoassay and clinical chemistry systems; assays used to screen or diagnosis cancer, cardiac, drugs of abuse, fertility, infectious diseases, and therapeutic drug monitoring; hematology systems and reagents; diagnostic systems and cartridges; instruments to automate the extraction, purification and preparation of DNA and RNA from patient samples, and detects and measures infectious agents; genomic-based tests; informatics and automation solutions; and a suite of informatics tools and professional services.

Abbott Labs investors are paid a 1.63% dividend. Merrill Lynch has a price target of $73, and the posted consensus target is $78.94. The shares closed at $66.94 on Wednesday.

Merck

This remains a leading health care stock for conservative investors. Merck & Co. Inc. (NYSE: MRK) offers therapeutic and preventive agents to treat cardiovascular issues, type 2 diabetes, asthma, nasal allergy symptoms, allergic rhinitis, chronic hepatitis C virus, HIV-1 infection, fungal infections, intra-abdominal infections, hypertension, arthritis and pain, inflammatory, osteoporosis, male pattern hair loss and fertility diseases.

The company also provides neuromuscular blocking agents for use in surgery, anti-bacterial products for skin and skin structure infections, cholesterol modifying medicines, non-sedating antihistamine and vaginal contraceptive products.

Merck shareholders receive a 2.65% dividend. The $79 Merrill Lynch price target compares with the $77.22 consensus target. The shares closed most recently at $7.54 apiece.

Pfizer

This is a top pharmaceutical company that made a gigantic splash last year with a $5.5 billion purchase of Anacor Pharmaceuticals. Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) is a global biopharmaceutical company with a diversified portfolio of products and pipeline candidates, and it is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world as measured by market capitalization and revenue. It also is a component of the Dow Jones industrial average.

The company’s commercial operations are bifurcated into two business segments: Innovative Health, which focuses on the development and commercialization of medicines and vaccines, as well as consumer health care products, in various therapeutic areas, and Essential Health, which offers branded generic products, biosimilars, anti-infectives and other products without marketing patent protection.

Investors in Pfizer are paid a very solid 3.07% dividend. Merrill Lynch has set its price objective at $46. The posted consensus price objective is $42.94, and the stock closed on Wednesday at $42.48 per share.

These four top pharmaceutical companies already have longstanding franchises with huge sales and revenues. More conservative accounts may want to buy shares of the pharmaceutical giants now, as the market volatility could remain for some time, which could make higher beta companies more stomach churning.