Walgreens keeps its eye on the drug supply chain, as CVS goes its own way
Walgreens Boots Alliance's potential takeover bid for AmerisourceBergen is the latest example of consolidation in the health-care industry, where once-distinct lines are continuously blurring.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Walgreens is in talks to acquire the portion of major drug distributor AmerisourceBergen it doesn't already own. The pharmacy chain first bought a stake in AmerisourceBergen in 2013 and has grown it to 26 percent in the nearly five years since.
Walgreens and AmerisourceBergen declined to respond to CNBC's requests for comment.
The deal would follow Walgreens' strategy of partnering with a company to evaluate it before outright buying it, though they don't always. Therefore the report wasn't entirely shocking, but it was surprising to some, given rival pharmacy chain CVS Health is taking a different approach with its planned acquisition of health insurer Aetna.
Both deals, in theory, could lower costs and drive traffic to retail stores, but they would do so in different ways.
The plans come as Amazon's entry into the health-care space stokes anxiety about the logistical mastermind disrupting the industry the same way it has numerous others. Amazon is partnering with J.P. Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway to create a not-for-profit health-care company aimed at using technology to lower costs. That move, combined with chatter about other steps Amazon may take, have rocked health-related stocks.
"I wouldn't say this is in response to CVS-Aetna or Amazon," said Leerink analyst David Larsen. "It may have been accelerated given the CVS-Aetna deal, but I would say it's sort of their normal operating playbook. It's interesting how Walgreens is moving downstream to distribution where CVS is moving upstream to a managed care plan. It's just different strategies."
The idea behind CVS' planned $69 billion acquisition of Aetna is the two can lower health costs by creating an integrated health system that combines pharmacy and health benefits with retail clinics. Walgreens buying AmerisourceBergen could lower costs in a different way.
Distributors buy drugs from manufacturers and handle the logistics of getting them to providers and pharmacies. They negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, making them an important piece of the supply chain. Buying AmerisourceBergen would put that piece of the chain under Walgreens' control.
The deal would add financial value for Walgreens over time, analysts said. Walgreens is valued at $67.82 billion, and AmerisourceBergen has a market capitalization of $19.65 billion, according to Thomson Reuters data.
However, some questioned the rationale for a possible deal. Jefferies analyst Brian Tanquilut called it "a little bit of a headscratcher" in a research note.
"(Walgreens Boots Alliance) has been openly discussing their intention of continuing to pursue vertical-integration deal opportunities, but acquiring the rest of (AmerisourceBergen), while financially rational, begs the question on what incremental strategic value the deal would bring, especially in light of recent moves by CVS and (Aetna) and even (Express Scripts) buying eviCore," Tanquilut wrote.
It's critical to remember these deals, though newsworthy, will not be CVS' nor Walgreens' last, said Cowen analyst Charles Rhyee. Despite the hype, he doesn't think Amazon has all the answers, noting other tech companies have tried and failed to change health care.
"It's almost like thinking on what Amazon will do you're assuming people in (the health-care industry) have no idea what they're doing and are still sitting on their hands," Rhyee said. "I don't think that's necessarily the case. If it was such a simple problem, it would have been solved a long time ago. There's room for a lot of potential ideas to solve it."