Investing in pharmaceutical stocks

The market is massive but competition between brand-name and generic drugmakers is fierce.

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The pharmaceutical industry is sizable, with the US commanding the largest slice of the market. But competition within the sector is cutthroat and regulatory approval is an ongoing hurdle. Read on to find out what you need to know before investing in pharmaceutical stocks from Australia.

What are pharmaceutical stocks?

Pharmaceutical stocks are stocks from companies that research and produce pharmaceutical drugs and medical equipment.

The industry is dominated by big names like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline — famous for blockbuster drugs netting over $US 1 billion in annual sales, like Advair, Lipitor and Zoloft.

But there are numerous up-and-comers in the industry offering a spectrum of entry points for Australian investors, like livestock medicine manufacturer Zoetis or Neoleukin Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company that targets immunological disorders.

Why invest in pharmaceutical stocks?

The global pharmaceutical industry is massive — and the US holds the largest slice of the market. In 2018, worldwide pharmaceutical revenue sat at $US 1.2 trillion, with the US commanding a 40.4% share of the market with pharmaceutical sales of $US 484.5 billion.

According to Statista, the US also happens to have some of the highest prescription drug prices in the world — bad news for the general public but profitable for well-established drug companies like Pfizer and its shareholders.

Pharma stocks also have the potential to outperform the broader market. For example, the SPDR S&P Pharmaceuticals ETF has outperformed the S&P 500 since its 2006 inception.

And if the potential for profit isn’t incentive enough, investors also have the opportunity to back potentially groundbreaking, life-saving medicine — medicine that they or a loved one may one day rely on.

Risks of investing in pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceutical stocks present a potentially lucrative investment opportunity but carry significant risks, including competition from generic drugmakers, product patent expirations and the substantial cost of research and development (R&D).

It’s estimated that pharmaceutical companies spend approximately 20% of their revenue on research and development. In fact, in 2018, US companies spent a collective $US 80 billion on R&D, according to Statista. What makes this expense especially unpalatable is the risk drug companies face in having their products rejected by regulatory authorities like the US Food and Drug Association (FDA). A company could spend millions researching and developing a product, only to have it rejected by the FDA.

Pharma companies also face steep competition from generic drugmakers attempting to undercut brand-name products with cheaper alternatives — especially for drugs with patent expirations on the horizon.

The industry is far from foolproof, and while pharma stocks could be a potentially profitable addition to your portfolio, make sure you understand the risks involved before you invest.

How has COVID-19 affected pharmaceutical stocks?

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, pharmaceutical companies have been thrust into the global spotlight as over 155 vaccine candidates scramble for regulatory clearance. Many of the big-name drug manufacturers with COVID-19 vaccines in trials have seen their stock prices rise alongside press releases of potential efficacy rates, including Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. These so-called COVID stocks may continue to see market growth, but the gains related to the pandemic may be short-lived.

There’s money to be made from selling a COVID-19 vaccine, but analysts warn that as more drug companies enter late-stage trials, the number of viable vaccine candidates will grow and no single manufacturer will be able to monopolize vaccine sales.

Investing in the pharmaceuticals industry

These pharmaceutical stocks hail from companies headquartered in Australia and around the globe.

Another way to invest in the pharmaceuticals industry is through ETFs. Pharmaceutical ETFs contain baskets of stocks from a range of businesses within the industry, including pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers and more.

  • BetaShares Global Healthcare ETF (DRUG)

Compare trading platforms

To invest, you’ll need a brokerage account in Australia. Explore your options below.

Name Product Standard brokerage fee Inactivity fee Markets International
eToro (global stocks)
US$0
US$10 per month if there’s been no login for 12 months
Global shares, US shares, ETFs
Yes
Zero brokerage share trading on US, Hong Kong and European stocks with trades as low as $50.
Note: This broker offers CFDs which are volatile investment products and most clients lose money trading CFDs with this provider.
Join the world’s biggest social trading network when you trade stocks, commodities and currencies from the one account.
IG Share Trading
$8
$50 per quarter if you make fewer than three trades in that period
ASX shares, Global shares
Yes
$0 brokerage for US and global shares plus get an active trader discount of $5 commission on Australian shares.
Enjoy some of the lowest brokerage fees on the market when trading Australian shares, international shares, plus get access to 24-hour customer support.
Superhero share trading
$5
No
ASX shares, US shares
Yes
Earn up to 15,000 Qantas frequent flyer points when you transfer an exisiting balance or trade. Offer valid for all new and existing Superhero members until 28 February.
Pay zero brokerage on US stocks and all ETFs and just $5 (flat fee) to trade Australian shares from your mobile or desktop.
ThinkMarkets Share Trading
$8
No
ASX shares
No
Limited-time offer: Get 10 free ASX trades ($0 brokerage) when you open a share trading account with ThinkMarkets before 31 December 2021(T&Cs apply). $8 flat fee brokerage for CHESS Sponsored ASX stocks (HIN ownership), plus free live stock price data on an easy to use mobile app.
Bell Direct Share Trading
$15
No
ASX shares, mFunds, ETFs
No
Finder Exclusive: Get 5 free stock trades and unlimited ETF trades until 31 Dec 2021, when you join Bell Direct. T&Cs apply.
Bell Direct offers a one-second placement guarantee on market-to-limit ASX orders or your trade is free, plus enjoy extensive free research reports from top financial experts.
Saxo Capital Markets (Classic account)
$5
No
ASX shares, Global shares, ETFs
Yes
Access 19,000+ stocks on 40+ exchanges worldwide
Low fees for Australian and global share trading, no inactivity fees, low currency conversion fee and optimised for mobile.
CMC Markets Invest
$11
No
ASX shares, Global shares, mFunds, ETFs
Yes
$0 brokerage on global shares including US, UK and Japan markets.
Trade up to 9,000 products, including shares, ETFs and managed funds, plus access up to 15 major global and Australian stock exchanges.
SelfWealth (Basic account)
$9.5
No
ASX shares, US shares
Yes
Trade ASX and US shares for a flat fee of $9.50, regardless of the trade size.
New customers receive free access to Community Insights with SelfWealth Premium for the first 90 days. Follow other investors and benchmark your portfolio performance.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Important: Share trading can be financially risky and the value of your investment can go down as well as up. Standard brokerage is the cost to purchase $1,000 or less of equities without any qualifications or special eligibility. Where both CHESS sponsored and custodian shares are offered, we display the cheapest option.

Bottom line

Pharma stocks offer Australian investors the opportunity to back groundbreaking drug research, but competition in this industry has the potential to threaten profits.

To invest in pharmaceutical companies, you’ll need a brokerage account. Compare your platform options to find the brokerage that fits your budget and investment goals needs.

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