In time we may all owe a debt of thanks to Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals and a former hedge fund manager. Their 5,456% increase in Daraprim brought attention to the the importance of regular price hikes in driving revenue growth at major drug companies. The Wall Street Journal later noted that almost 80% of the increase in the top line for the manufacturers of 30 top-selling drugs came from raising prices versus increasing volumes. It strikes me that this may just become a political issue in the U.S., especially heading into an election year. High drug prices affect millions of Americans and it’s easy for the media to find some poor individual whose needed medication has suddenly tripled in price. Hilary Clinton’s infamous “price gouging” tweet shows that the issue easily lends itself to sound bites, a necessary condition to retain media interest. Big pharma represents a fairly easy target. Congressional hearings no doubt loom for companies such as Valeant (VRX), whose business model relies on testing the limits of the market’s acceptance for price hikes. They operate as a ruthless capitalist in a market where the laws of economics routinely fail, since customers (patients) are rarely informed buyers and typically incur the expense not directly through paying the asking price, but indirectly through consequently higher health insurance premiums or ultimately higher taxes. One friend told me he holds an investment in health care stocks as a hedge against rising medical expenses for him and his wife, an unusual yet insightful approach.
A common refrain from drug companies is that high drug prices (and the relatively unregulated U.S. market has the highest) allow money to be reinvested back into R&D. This is a weak argument. If research has a high enough IRR, it can be funded through capital from the public and private markets; it doesn’t have to be through retained earnings. It’s just as likely that the ability to charge whatever they can dramatically increases the IRR on R&D. High drug prices themselves makes the R&D more worthwhile than it would be otherwise.
We don’t invest in healthcare stocks, as might be apparent. Therefore, to the extent we run investment strategies that are benchmarked against the S&P500, we are effectively short the health care sector, which has outperformed the S&P500 for the last three years and remains on pace to do so again in 2015. The issue of drug pricing isn’t likely to recede soon though, and maybe health care stocks will start receiving some of the opprobrium so routinely heaped on banks and oil companies. The energy sector is due for a break as most out of favor.
Martin Shkreli used to work at a hedge fund, and he would probably like the economics of the General Partner (GP) in the MLP sector too. Targa Resources Partners (NGLS) is an MLP whose business is divided between the midstream activities of Gathering and Processing (G&P) of crude oil and natural gas across the central U.S., and downstream activities of Marketing and Distribution. NGLS recently provided guidance for 2016 that included flat distribution growth, reflecting the more challenging environment for some energy infrastructure businesses. However, as the hedge fund is to the hedge fund manager, so is NGLS to Targa Resource Corp (TRGP), the GP of NGLS. The same guidance projected 15% dividend growth at TRGP. Flat returns for hedge fund clients rarely hurt the hedge fund manager, and so it is at TRGP whose Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs) are at the 50% level, entitling it to half the Distributable Cash Flow from NGLS, the MLP it controls through its ownership of the GP and IDRs. TRGP currently yields 6.3% on its forecast $4.12 2016 dividend, and with a market cap of $3.7BN is of sufficiently modest size to be of interest to many potential acquirers.
We are invested in TRGP.