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Does This ETF Exceed the Sum of Its Parts?

We look at how a biotech ETF holds up in an iffy climate for those stocks.

Karen Andersen, 09/17/2007

If there's an industry that should be immune to the recent market turmoil we've seen, it's biotechnology. Although a severe liquidity crisis could crimp biotech firms' access to capital, demand for innovative, life-saving treatments is largely recession-proof.

Yet, biotech hasn't been a port in the storm of late, with biotech stocks turning in a decidedly mixed showing for the year to date. With that in mind, it seems worthwhile to examine the biotech market environment, reassess the factors that can drive short-term volatility, and consider alternative means of exploiting compelling biotech ideas, such as the Biotech HOLDRs BBH exchange-traded fund.

Taking Stock
Larger-cap biotechs have been hurt by concerns about drug safety and new competition. For example, Amgen AMGN shares have taken a beating due to safety concerns, tightened Medicare reimbursement for its anemia drugs, and fears that reimbursement for other therapies--particularly innovative cancer drugs--could also be curtailed in the future. Investors are also beginning to fret about the looming entrance of generic biologics into the U.S. market, though we think fears of rapid adoption and severe markdowns are overdone (as the requirements for approval will likely be individualized for each drug).

At the other end of the spectrum, some smaller-cap names have done quite well this year, thanks to a mixture of takeover speculation and positive clinical data. Onyx Pharmaceuticals ONXX, which is a good example of both, is up a dizzying 305% for the year to date through Sept. 9. However, others have been hammered by poor clinical data or surprising FDA rejections and delays.

These wildly divergent showings, and the factors behind them, offer a vivid illustration of how unpredictable biotech performance can be. While we're mindful not to confuse stock price volatility with fundamental business risk, the biotech business' boom/bust nature subjects even the most-thoughtful forecasts to significant uncertainty. Not coincidentally, we rate all but a handful of the biotech stocks that we cover as "above-average" or "speculative" risk.

Given this risk, it can be worthwhile to consider investing in a basket of biotech stocks as an alternative to a stake in a single stock, as the diversification across names can help to diffuse some of this uncertainty. That is, the whole can exceed the sum of the parts. With that possibility in mind, we thought we'd take a closer look at Biotech HOLDRs, an ETF that spreads its assets across 15 biotech stocks--14 of which we cover here at Morningstar.

Biotech HOLDRs
Our fair value estimate for Biotech HOLDRs was $185 per share as of Sept. 6, 2007, or roughly 8% above the ETF's market price on that date. Given the fund's narrow subsector focus and concentration in just a handful of names, we'd only be enthusiastic buyers of the shares when they were trading a 10% or greater discount to fair value. Therefore, while this ETF looks cheap, it's not yet a screaming bargain in our book.PAGEBREAK

Our fair value estimate is largely driven by our take on the fund's top two holdings, Genentech DNA and Amgen, which together recently comprised roughly 60% of assets. Genentech, the biggest holding, and Amgen were down 3% and 24%, respectively, for the year through Sept. 6. That has thrown both stocks into the bargain bin (each garners 4 stars) while also, by virtue of those stocks' weight in the portfolio, putting this ETF on sale.

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