Profits over patients: US pharma spending billions on investor payouts

pharmafile | June 2, 2021 | News story | Research and Development Trump, US, stocks 

In 2017 Donald Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), creating billions of dollars in tax rate cuts for US pharma companies.

A report from Oxfam found that together, Johnson &Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, and Abbott received a $1.7 billion windfall from tax rate cuts in 2018, and in total are now paying almost $7 billion per year less in taxes as a result of the TCJA being embedded in the US corporate tax overhaul.

With all this extra cash in hand, surely this was an excellent opportunity for big US pharma to invest in R&D and lower drug prices?

The damming report from Oxfam in 2019 paints a different story. It found that all four companies had instead distributed even more funds to their investors, spending $21 billion more in paying out to investors than they did on R&D in the first full year of the new US corporate tax regime.

The numbers are staggering, with the average annual spending of these four companies on dividends and stock buybacks reaching $38.6 billion, with R&D spending only reaching $29 billion.

Analysis of the 12 largest US pharma companies by Axios, also found that companies repurchased $69.1 billion of their own stocks in 2018, whilst spending $65.9 billion on R&D – a disparity of $3.2 billion.

Speaking to Fierce Pharma, Jeremy Levin, Ovid Therapeutics CEO, said: “A premium must be placed on new products and novel launches because if you don’t do that and you invest in buying back your stock instead of buying for your future, then you have satisfied the short term need for some shareholders but you have, in the long term, lost value.”

Stock buybacks are common practice in business as by repurchasing shares and reducing the share count, you are effectively pumping up earnings per share over time.

Buybacks are particularly concerning as they, in contrast to dividends, can allow trillions of dollars of stock market gains, held by the richest of US billionaires, to escape federal income taxation altogether. This is even more alarming when you consider the fact that the richest 10% of Americans now own 84% of all stocks.

Another reason why stock buybacks are so popular is the loophole written into the 1996 US law on executive compensation. While the intent of the law was to rein in runaway CEO pay, the loophole allows for unrestricted “performance pay,” with performance measured by increases in the price of company stock. Buybacks give a huge boost to stock prices and line the pockets of CEOs in the process. In 2015 pharmaceutical CEOs’ average compensation was $18.5 million, 71% greater than the median earned by executives in all industries.

Addressing Congress in 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said: “CEOs right now are not incentivised the invest in research and development they’re incentivised to raise their stock price.

“If we eliminated stock buybacks, we could reduce the cost outlays of insurance and pharmaceutical companies by at least half, when you compare just R&D and stock buybacks alone.

“There is no reason for a drug as simple as insulin, which costs $21 in Canada for a 10ml bottle, to cost the equivalent of a mortgage payment or sometimes tow mortgage payments.”

Kat Jenkins

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