Should You Sell GlaxoSmithKline plc After It’s Been Fined And Buy AstraZeneca plc?

I’m always saddened when I hear of anti-competitive collusion in big industry, and it seems even worse in the pharmaceuticals business, when it’s sick people who lose out.

On Friday came the news that GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK) has been hit with a £37m fine for paying companies making generic versions of its out-of-patent drug Seroxat to delay their production. According to the Competition and Markets Authority, Glaxo paid around £50m between 2001 and 2004 to a number of smaller firms, preventing the NHS from making some potentially significant savings — these smaller companies have also been fined, a total of £7.4m.

But the size of the fine isn’t likely to make any real difference to Glaxo, which recorded a pre-tax profit of more than £10.5 billion in the year to December 2013 — and it doesn’t come close to the £2 billion the company was fined in 2012 for making illegal payments in the US for the prescription of Seroxat. And the news has had little effect on the share price, which is up 7.5p to 1,353p on the day as I write.

What should we do?

What can investors do? Well, putting aside ethical issues, we’re looking at a company that has just announced an 80p-per-share total dividend for 2015, plus a 20p special dividend, providing an overall yield of 7.4%. Glaxo also told us to expect 80p per share for 2016 and 2017 too, which would provide almost-guaranteed yields of 5.9% per year. Overall, GlaxoSmithKline still looks like a solid defensive investment to me.

Alternatively, you could look to the expected turnaround at AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN) that has been gathering steam since Pascal Soriot took the helm in October 2012. AstraZeneca has also reiterated its commitment to a progressive dividend policy, maintaining its 2015 annual payment at the same 280 cents (approximately 193p) per share that it’s been for some time. On today’s share price of 4,025p, that’s a yield of 4.8%. It’s not as high as Glaxo’s, but it is reasonably well covered by earnings.

AstraZeneca’s shares have fallen considerably since the days when Pfizer tried to snap it up for £55 per share, and some of the initial bullishness over Mr Soriot’s aim of getting annual revenue above $45m by 2023 has faded. In fact, there’s still a modest 10% fall in EPS forecast for this year, and a return to earnings growth was never really on the cards before 2017 at the earliest.

Little optimism

But on a forward P/E of 15, there really doesn’t seem to be much optimism built into the share price right now — and AstraZeneca does have a pretty meaty drug development pipeline building up. I think the promised return to growth is pretty much inevitable, but frustrated investors could turn bearish on the company in the shorter term if we don’t see definite upwards indications before the end of this year.

Which of these two makes the best investment right now? I think that’s too close to call — and I reckon either would stand you in good stead for the long term.

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Alan Oscroft has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended AstraZeneca and 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.