Merck Spending Too Much on R & D

I was recently surprised by my own indifferent response to a couple of recent pharmaceutical industry news reports that should have been shocking, if not mind boggling. One of them was:

 “Merck CEO defends hefty research spending” (Reuters).

Defend research spending?  Since when would investors be concerned about spending too much on R & D,  in any industry for that matter, but for pharmaceuticals? Are you kidding?

There are a couple of underlying issues that make this situation very disconcerting but understandable.  First, the article identifies “investors” as those who have expressed concerns about the amount Merck and other pharmaceutical companies are spending on R & D.   I’m pretty sure they are not talking about individual investors but rather institutional investors and investment analysts.

The problem is that these analysts and the firms they work for are mostly driven by short term financial results.  When long term corporate value-creation compromises short term financial gain opportunities, analyst and investment banking compensation (especially bonuses) can be negatively impacted.   For example, cutting corporate expenses to increase near-term earnings usually creates more positive stock movement and compensation opportunities than any long-term strategic investment will ever create.

Just look at the daily stock price ups and downs for pharmaceutical companies driven by a single piece of clinical data or a letter from the FDA.   For an investor market driven by a short term “make a quick buck” mentality, long term financial consequences become somebody else’s problem.

So why does Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier get so much attention for what is considered by some analysts as a questionably high level of R & D spending?  For most pharmaceutical company executives, their short term incentives are often similar to those of the analysts and investment bankers.   So, in this light, Mr. Frazier’s long-term perspective may be an outlier in not playing to the expectations of Wall Street.

Perhaps Mr. Frazier understands that innovation in prescription drugs is critical for the long term success of Merck.  Perhaps he understands that truly innovative new products are what pharmaceutical companies need to remain relevant and viable in the evolving new healthcare market.  Perhaps he realizes that a reliance on academia and small entrepreneurial ventures for innovative new products carries the risk of a limited supply. This reliance on outside sources of innovation could subject his company to the finite availability of viable drug candidates at any given time which drives up pre-approval (and sometimes before clinical proof-of-concept) prices (think Gilead $11 billion acquisition of Pharmasset) with no assurance the products will ever get approved.

Mr. Frazier gets noticed  and media attention because he’s in the minority of not playing to the investment analysts’ needs for short term financial gains that can drive stock prices up and provide investors with temporary gratification while handsomely rewarding analysts and their firms for being so smart.

It would be one thing for investors to insist on increasing the productivity and output of Merck and pharmaceutical industry R & D.  I have commented before  and the industry has proven that merely spending more doesn’t necessarily get you more innovative new products.   But, to suggest Merck is spending too much on R & D seems to me to be another attempt by analysts to drive for a near-term balance sheet excitement that can help them drive share price, temporarily.

I’m sure there is room for improvement in Merck’s R & D productivity but I believe that to outright suggest they are spending too much money on R & D is not in the best interest of Merck, its shareholders, or patients.