MRK is up about 14% from its December low. Is it a good time to buy?

As I’ve studied the market over the years, one of the intriguing contrasts comes in the way different analysis methods take in the “big picture” of the market. That includes the way that fundamental investors and analysts look at the market versus those that prefer to work on strictly technical terms. I like to work with a blend of both methods, which means that sometimes I have to find ways to resolve contradictions between the two.

Here’s one of the most basic examples of what I mean. One of the core principles of fundamental analysis holds that stock prices are a reflection of the  strength in the underlying business; increasing profits should logically translate to higher stock prices. Technicians, on the other hand prefer to think of the market as a reflection of investor sentiment, which can of course be influenced by fundamental strength in a stock’s underlying business, but is also subject to any number of other factors that can swing an investor’s view of a stock’s opportunity or risk. A common saying among technicians that reflects this mindset about stock prices is, “the market is always right.” 

Sometimes these disparate views converge, which means that fundamental strength will coincide with a nice increase in stock price, or that fundamental weakness will line up with an extended decline in price. Which one was more right, or possibly influenced the other? I think that’s a bit like asking which came first, the chicken, or the egg. You can circle around one or the other forever and never really come up with a satisfying answer.

The last two years of market activity, I think have provided an interesting example of the way these two philosophies about market dynamics often differ with each other. The arrival of COVID-19 to American shores in early 2020, of course forced the market into a rapid correction that feel far enough to be called a bear market, but from a March 2020 low, the market not only recovered the entire distance lost in the drop but has since extended its more than a decade-long upward trend; the S&P 500, for example peaked prior to the pandemic at around 3,400, fell to about 2,200, and as of this morning’s open is now sitting above 4,600 – well over doubling its value from its pandemic-induced, bear market low. That long-term trend extension has come even though the global pandemic is now extending into its third year, with variants keeping infections high throughout the globe. And while that hasn’t shuttered economic activity the way that it did in early 2020, it has kept pressure on businesses to continually find ways to adapt and meet residual challenges that include labor and supply chain shortages and the increasing costs that go with them.

Current market conditions – the market is off of its latest high, but as already observed significantly above pre-pandemic levels, with inflation fears that include the Fed’s stated intention to raise rates at least three times this year that suggest economic uncertainty is going to continue to be a theme as we kick off the new year. It also means that I still think the smart approach right now is to be very cautious about taking on new positions; when you do, focus on stocks in defensive industries. For me, those industries have always included areas like Food Products and Utilities, but for the last couple of years have also included health care stocks. COVID vaccines and treatments have helped to minimize some of the worst effects of infections for many over the last two years, and history has shown that vaccines are still the most reliable way to provide a long-term solution to curb viruses and diseases. That means that many of the largest companies in the Pharmaceutical space should occupy a regular spot in any long-term investor’s watchlist.

MRK is one of the largest companies in the Pharmaceutical space, with a big pipeline of drug treatments, and patent protection that offers a shield from revenue erosion for most of its biggest revenue producers. That’s a big deal, because once a patent on a proprietary drug expires, generic producers can start using the same formulas to offer lower-cost alternatives. Patent protection means that MRK is assured of pricing protection on important drugs like Keytruda, a cancer drug that the company is working hard to expand as a treatment solution for a widening scope of cancer types. In the case of Keytruda, that patent extends into 2028. The company also received emergency use authorization in December for molnupiravir as a treatment for mild-to-moderate coronavirus in adults. That bit of news seems to have given the stock a lift, as it has rallied from its early December low at around $71 to a current price a little below $80. It is also well off the stock 52-week high, reached in early November at around $91.50. Does that make the stock a good buy right now? Let’s dive in.

Fundamental and Value Profile

Merck & Co., Inc. is a global healthcare company. The Company offers health solutions through its prescription medicines, vaccines, biologic therapies and animal health products. It operates through four segments: Pharmaceutical, Animal Health, Healthcare Services and Alliances. The Company’s Pharmaceutical segment includes human health pharmaceutical and vaccine products marketed either directly by the Company or through joint ventures. Human health pharmaceutical products consist of therapeutic and preventive agents, generally sold by prescription, for the treatment of human disorders. The Company sells its human health pharmaceutical products primarily to drug wholesalers and retailers, hospitals, government agencies and managed healthcare providers, such as health maintenance organizations, pharmacy benefit managers and other institutions. Vaccine products consist of preventive pediatric, adolescent and adult vaccines, primarily administered at physician offices. MRK’s current market cap is about $203.7 billion.

Earnings and Sales Growth: Over the last twelve months, earnings were flat, but positive, at 0.57%, while sales increased by 4.8%. In the last quarter, earnings increased by almost 33.6% while sales grew by nearly 15.4%. MRK’s profit margin is healthy, and strengthening measurably. In the last twelve months, Net Income as a percentage of Revenues was 13.78% and 34.72% in the last quarter. 

Free Cash Flow: MRK’s free cash flow is generally healthy, at $7.2 billion over the last year. This number has increased from a year ago, when Free Cash Flow was $5.5 billion, but is still below its early-2020 levels, when this number was $9.96 billion. Its current number translates to a modest Free Cash Flow Yield of 3.59%.

Debt to Equity: MRK has a debt/equity ratio of .64. This is a conservative number, which is supported by the company’s balance sheet, which indicates operating profits are sufficient to service the debt they have. They also have good liquidity, with $10 billion in cash and liquid assets versus $22.9 billion in long-term debt.

Dividend: MRK pays an annual dividend of $2.76 per share, which translates to an annual yield that of about 3.44% at the stock’s current price.

Price/Book Ratio: there are a lot of ways to measure how much a stock should be worth; but I like to work with a combination of Price/Book and Price/Cash Flow analysis. Together, these measurements provide a long-term, fair value target at around $86.50 per share. That means the stock is somewhat undervalued, with 8% upside from its current price, and a practical discount price at around $69.

Technical Profile

Here’s a look at the stock’s latest technical chart.

Current Price Action/Trends and Pivots: The chart above displays MRK’s price action over the last year. The red diagonal line plots the stock’s big bullish push from mid-September at around $71 to its peak in early November 2021 at around $91.50, and also provides the baseline for the Fibonacci retracement lines on the right side of the chart. That temporary push broke the stock’s trading range through most of 2021 between about $79 at the top end and $71 on the low end. From that peak, the stock dropped back near to its yearly low, finding support at around $72 and starting a new rally from that point. The stock has since broken above the 61.8% retracement at around $78.50, which means it should now act as current support, with immediate resistance at around $81 based on both previous pivot activity and the  50% retracement line. A push above $81 should give the stock room to between $83.50 and $84 before finding next resistance, while a drop below $78.50 could see the stock fall to about $75.50 to next support.

Near-term Keys: While I can’t call MRK a compelling bargain right now, the fundamentals are very strong, with a stable, attractive dividend in place. That should be enough to keep this stock in your watchlist to keep an eye for more attractive opportunities that may come up down the road. If you prefer working with short-term trading strategies, a push above $81 could provide a signal to buy the stock or work with call options, using $84 as a reasonable bullish profit target, while a drop below $78.50 could be useful signal to consider shorting the stock or buying put options, with $75.50 offering a decent profit target on a bearish trade.