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AstraZeneca – strong financial and clinical progress

AstraZeneca has beaten first quarter forecasts and re-iterated full-year guidance.
Astrazeneca logo- Gettyimages

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AstraZeneca’s first quarter sales were up by 19% to $12.7bn, ignoring the effect of currency movements. This was 7% ahead of consensus forecasts, reflecting double-digit growth across all disease areas except Vaccines & Immune Therapieswhich felt saw lower COVID-19 medicine sales.

Underlying profit came in at $4.3bn, with growth of 15% lagging sales, largely due to increased marketing. Astra has received six regulatory approvals since the year end and initiated six late-stage Phase III trials.

Free cash flow of $2.1bn fell by 28% driven in part by increased capital expenditure, as Astra invests further in manufacturing projects and technology upgrades. Net debt was $26.5bn at the quarter end.

There were no changes to full-year guidance. Recently, the company also announced it expects this year’s total dividend to rise by $0.20 per share to $3.10.

The shares rose 4.9% following the announcement.

Our view

AstraZeneca’s product sales have come racing out the traps in the early part of 2024. The company has also continued to drive forward its pipeline of new products, an area where Astra's hit rate in the clinic has been impressive.

Cancer treatments (about a third of sales) are a cornerstone of Astra's offering.. Often these drugs can maintain high growth levels for many years, as patient access improves, approvals are gained in new markets, and clinical trials prove their efficacy in additional diseases. And the diverse late-stage pipeline means there are lots of potential shots on goal. They vary in size but some such as dato-DXd which in some cancers could replace chemotherapy, have the potential to be transformational. But given the risks inherent in drug discovery, investors need to be prepared for disappointments.

Astra is also seeing strong growth elsewhere. Ultomirisis which came along with the acquisition of rare disease specialist Alexion saw sales grow 32% in the first quarter and there could be more to come following a further regulatory approval. Farxiga which treats cardiovascular disease, kidney problems and type 2 diabetes is also growing very strongly, ahead of other products in the same class. We see the broad focus on different disease areas as a positive.

The intense focus on product development can be expensive in terms of research and marketing.. That's no bad thing, and drug development is a lengthy process, but increased internal investment can drag on profits. It's important to look at the shares on a long-term view.

Net debt is sitting at about 1.5x cash profits which doesn't look too demanding. However, it's something to keep an eye on. The group's likely to put more money into research and development. Continuing success in drug approvals will be needed in order to offset the potential loss of revenue from patent expirations over the coming years. For now, however, Astra is generating strong cash flows from its existing portfolio of marketed medicines. This also supports the modest dividend yield, though nothing is guaranteed.

Astra's also using its firepower to beef up the research pipeline through deals with other players in the space and we're supportive of the continued focus on complementary acquisitions in novel areas of medicine. This should enable higher margins and a strong competitive edge. The valuation, which sits a little below the long-term average, doesn’t look too demanding. But a bulging pipeline also carries significant execution risk which investors need to be prepared to accept.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk

The pharmaceuticals sector is relatively high-risk in terms of ESG. Product governance, particularly with safety and marketing, and affordable access to treatment are the key risk drivers. Labour relations, business ethics and bribery and corruption are also contributors to ESG risk.

According to Sustainalytics, AstraZeneca's overall management of material ESG issues is strong. The executive compensation plan includes a target to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and the sustainability strategy is overseen by upper management. AstraZeneca has implemented a robust programme to monitor patient safety trends and ensure the quality and efficacy of its products. Access to healthcare is a key strategic priority. The company has a strong human capital development programme with initiatives to recruit and retain highly specialised employees, highly pertinent following the acquisition of Alexion which adds 2,500 headcount.

AstraZeneca key facts

All ratios are sourced from Refinitiv, based on previous day’s closing values. Please remember yields are variable and not a reliable indicator of future income. Keep in mind key figures shouldn’t be looked at on their own – it’s important to understand the big picture.

This article is original Hargreaves Lansdown content, published by Hargreaves Lansdown. It was correct as at the date of publication, and our views may have changed since then. Unless otherwise stated estimates, including prospective yields, are a consensus of analyst forecasts provided by Refinitiv. These estimates are not a reliable indicator of future performance. Yields are variable and not guaranteed. Investments rise and fall in value so investors could make a loss.

This article is not advice or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any investment.No view is given on the present or future value or price of any investment, and investors should form their own view on any proposed investment.This article has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and is considered a marketing communication.Non - independent research is not subject to FCA rules prohibiting dealing ahead of research, however HL has put controls in place(including dealing restrictions, physical and information barriers) to manage potential conflicts of interest presented by such dealing.Please see our full non - independent research disclosure for more information.
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Written by
Derren Nathan
Derren Nathan
Head of Equity Research

Derren leads our Equity Research team with more than 15 years of experience in his field. Thriving in a passionate environment, Derren finds motivation in intellectual challenges and exploring diverse ideas within his writing.

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Article history
Published: 25th April 2024