Why The Tipsters Like AstraZeneca plc Better Than GlaxoSmithKline plc

The pharmaceuticals industry is recovering pretty well from the “patent cliff” problems when a number of key drugs lost their protection in recent years, and though there’s increasing competition from generic drugs, our two big FTSE 100 players are rebuilding their pipelines strongly. The City’s tipsters seem a little tentative still, but they do seem to have a preference for AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN)(NYSE: AZN.US).

GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK)(NYSE: GSK.US) didn’t need quite the same drastic recovery strategy as AstraZeneca, and there are still a lot of analysts who don’t seem to know what to make of it. Of a sample of 28, a full 16 are on a Neutral stance, with the rest split six apiece between the Buy and Sell camps.

Short-term price targets aren’t too encouraging either, with a recent average of around 1,475p — and that’s 6% below the current price of 1,565p! There’s still an EPS fall on the cards for this year with modest growth expected in 2016, and with a forward P/E of 17 and the mooted 5.2% dividend yield only covered 1.12 times by forecast earnings, I wouldn’t be expecting much in the short term.

More optimistic

At AstraZeneca we have 33 pundits offering their thoughts, and they’re still a bit split between 11 Buys and nine Sells, but at least that’s a bit more positive — and there’s a smaller proportion of them, at 13, sitting on the Neutral fence.

But it’s when we take a look at price targets that we see the difference. The recent average for AstraZeneca stands at 5,060p — and that’s a 13% premium on the current 4,473p price. So why the difference?

For one thing, though AstraZeneca shares are on a forward P/E of 16.3, which is above the FTSE long-term average, it’s a more modest rating that Glaxo’s — and Astra’s predicted dividend yield of 4.1% might be a little lower, but it would be 1.5 times covered by earnings.

Forecasts improving

We’ve also seen AstraZeneca forecasts improving over the past few months, with earnings for both 2015 and 2016 edging upwards. The accepted wisdom is that Astra won’t return to earnings growth before 2017, but the company keeps beating expectations and confidence in chief executive Pascal Soriot is very high — I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see 2016 turn in a small rise instead of the forecast 2% drop.

AstraZeneca is definitely looking better value to me now, and that’s even after its shares have put on 12% over the past 12 months while Glaxo’s have lost 7% — and over five years we’re looking at a 49% gain from Astra against 28% for Glaxo.

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Alan Oscroft 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.