Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Wisdom of Buybacks

Last week both Biogen Idec and Genzyme announced significant share buybacks. Wall Street was happy.

Biogen is buying back $3 billion worth of stock, or 57 million shares (16% of its outstanding share capital) via a dutch auction. Genzyme--which announced its buyback on the same day it said it would spend $345 million to buy Bioenvision--is buying back $1.5 billion worth (or 20 million shares) over the next three years.

Genzyme's efforts, the company said, are designed to reduce the dilutive effects of its share-based compensation programs and demonstrate that the company sees its shares as a good investment. Biogen too says that the move will return value to shareholders. Buybacks, according to people with more financial acumen than us, are a tax effective way of returning money to shareholders.

But IN VIVO Blog doesn't quite get it. Biogen Idec and Genzyme aren't banks, or fast food chains, or textbook suppliers. For companies aiming to generate medicines and the long-term gains that go with novel and effective drugs, buybacks seem to us a waste of money. Especially for biotech companies--who ought to be investing in R&D, alliances, M&A, basically any way that builds pipeline value (and whose investors should be in the game for a big return, not just the single-digit short term percentage gains that accompany a buyback announcement). Of course, Biogen and Genzyme maintain that they have ample free cash to both invest wisely in their pipelines and to buy back shares. Perhaps they do, and there's always debt ... though that can come back to bite companies whose share price declines before the convertible matures.

In any case it seems to us that buybacks provide investors with, at best, a short-term bounce in stock price and little long-term value. We're not financial gurus, of course, so tell us what you think. We'll talk to a few bankers and take a look at the buyback issue a little more closely in the next IN VIVO.

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