Good Medicine: GlaxoSmithKline plc And AstraZeneca plc Can Help You Sleep At Night

FTSE 100-listed pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN) (NYSE: AZN.US) and GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK) (NYSE: GSK.US) were never supposed to set investors’ hearts racing.

They were thought to offer soothing combination of healthy dividends and steady share price growth: Night Nurse for your portfolio.

But no stock can give you that much reassurance, and the share prices of both have been far more restless than many investors expected.

Cheeky Pascal

When Pascal Soriot was appointed chief executive at AstraZeneca in October 2012, he inherited a seriously troubled company.

Its drug pipeline was depleted, key brands had lost exclusivity, cash-strapped governments were cutting health spending, and both revenues and profits were down sharply.

At the time investors could buy it for less than eight times earnings, on a yield of more than 6%.

Blue Skies Ahead

Soriot deserves massive credit for the subsequent turnaround, which has seen a share price rise 65% since then to today’s 4732p.

AstraZeneca has celebrated three consecutive quarters of revenue growth and is making a big R&D drive into blockbuster drugs, with a fat pipeline of more than 121 products.

UBS praised its “under-appreciated” pipeline, picking out eight assets which could deliver “blue-sky” sales of more than $2bn by 2023.

AstraZeneca recently announced a successful large-scale clinical trial of is Brilinta tablets for patients with a history of heart attack, while the European medicines regulator has approved its application to market 200mg gout tablets, lesinurad.

AstraZeneca isn’t as cheap as it was, trading at 14.9 times earnings and yielding 3.9%, but the dividend is nicely covered 1.8 times, and a return on capital employed of more than 33% points to a well-run company.

Glaxo’s Up

Glaxo’s troubles of a more recent vintage, thanks to the China bribery scandal, and falling pharmaceuticals and vaccines sales in the US.

Despite that, I recent singled it out as my favourite FTSE 100 stock for 2015, and it has rewarded my faith with a positive start.

Its share price is up 7.5% so far this year to 1490p, a vote of confidence in its promising drugs pipeline, and the success of its ViiV Healthcare division.

It still has to turn that pipeline into products, although it was boosted by recent news that its Ebola vaccine, which uses a type of chimpanzee cold virus, has been shipped to Liberia for first large-scale trials.

Sleep Tight

Despite its share price recovery Glaxo doesn’t look overpriced at 13.6 times earnings, yet, and the yield is still healthy at 5.3%, covered 1.4 times. That looks particularly attractive as the first interest rate hike slides further out of reach.

Both AstraZeneca and Glaxo have given investors a few sleepless nights in recent years, but their future looks rather more comforting.

There are few things more restful than the prospect of earning a regular dividend from a solid blue-chip stock.

And the good news is that the FTSE 100 is packed with top stocks paying as much as 5% or 6% a year.

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Harvey Jones has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended GlaxoSmithKline. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.