Sunehri zulfon, nasheeli ankhon ki desh ko khokar;
Main hairaan hoon woh zikr waadi-e-kashmir ke karte hain. (After losing Bangladesh, I am troubled to learn they still go on about the Kashmir valley.) - Habib Jalib
Sunday, 11 May 2014
Pfizer's bid for AstraZeneca shows that big pharma is as rotten as the banks
Global pharmaceutical companies are dodging the risks by loading R&D costs on to taxpayers
Every one of Pfizer’s patented drugs benefited from decades of taxpayer funds. Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex
Countries around the world are seeking long-run, innovation-led growth in the "real economy". This is born of a wish to move away from speculative growth led by short-term financial markets. For this reason, industrial policy is back on the agenda after years of being a near blasphemy.
The life-sciences industry is top of the list, for both Barack Obama and David Cameron, of "real" industries to nurture through such policy. But this month they have been reminded of an uncomfortable truth: big pharma is just as sick as the banks. And, like speculative finance, it is hurting taxpayers in the process.
Pfizer wants to buy AstroZeneca, a British firm, to cuts its high overheads and especially to pay the lower UK tax rate (20%) – the cheap way the UK attracts "capital"– rather than the 40% US tax rate. This is nothing new as Google and Apple have been shifting profits around the world to avoid tax. Even within the US, Apple moved one of its subsidiaries to Reno, Nevada to avoid paying higher tax in Cupertino, California. Let's call it a race to the bottom.
What makes this dynamic particularly problematic for the taxpayer is that the knowledge behind Apple and Pfizer products – the key to their long-run profits – has been virtually bankrolled by that same taxpayer. As I discuss in my book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Private vs Public Sector Myths, every technology behind the iPhone was publicly funded (internet, GPS, touch-screen, Siri) and every one of Pfizer's patented drugs benefited from decades of taxpayer funds through the US National Institutes of Health, which in 2012 alone spent £32bn (£19bn).
Indeed, Pfizer's recent shift of one of its largest R&D laboratories from Sandwich in Kent to Boston was not due to the lower taxes or regulation in Boston but to be closer to this pot of gold. Coming back to the UK only to suck more blood out of the system should warn the government of the kind of image it wants to present of itself. Is it happy to be played front and back?
And what is happening to big pharma's research and development? In the name of "open innovation" – the admission that most of their knowledge comes from small biotech and large public labs – big pharma have been closing down their own R&D (reducing total numbers of researchers), as well as moving the remaining ones to be close to those labs.
Big pharma is no longer in the innovation business, using its own resources to fund the high-risk ideas, most of which will fail. It has become more risk-averse and prefers to focus on the D of R&D and please shareholders. Mergers and acquisition strategies reduce expensive overheads and costs (of which research infrastructure is the highest).
Things become even clearer when we look at the numbers behind one of their biggest expenditures: share buybacks. These are geared to boost stock prices, stock options and executive pay. Indeed it is this type of dynamic that has been driving the extreme inequality described by Thomas Piketty. The calculations of Professor William Lazonick suggest that in 2011, along with $6.2bn paid in dividends, Pfizer repurchased $9bn in stock, equivalent to 90% of its net income and 99% of its R&D expenditures.
While the justification for such buybacks is often that there are no "opportunities for investment", the increased public funds in pharma research shows who is funding the opportunities and who is free-riding. Though in the end both lose since without an engaged private partner, innovation suffers.
To make matters worse, these "innovative" companies advising governments on their "life-sciences" strategies are constantly seeking handouts through R&D tax credits, or more recently through the UK Patent Box tax scheme introduced in 2013 (as well as in the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, and soon in the US), with a 10% tax for income earned on patented drugs.
Patents are already monopolies with 17 years' protection. There is no reason to increase profits even more during that time. Especially as what drives the research that leads to patents is not the "cost" of the research, but the opportunities that are perceived—historically driven by large amounts of risk-loving public funds.
Experts from the Institute for Fiscal Studies have argued that this policy will diminish government revenue by about £2bn a year, and have no effect on business investment in research – which was meant to be the point. Indeed, private investment tends to follow well-funded public investments, that are of course undermined by the constant bashing away at the ability of government to collect tax revenue. This not an innovation strategy but a City-like speculation strategy.
The parallel goes even further: just like the banks, big pharma socialises the risk, but privatises rewards. The few drugs that are coming out would not have emerged without taxpayer-funded research. Yet the taxpayer then pays twice: first for the research then for the high prices, justified by the supposedly high risk that big pharma is taking on. This is almost surreal: what risk? And what about taxpayer risk?
Rather than empty words on a life-sciences strategy, what is needed is for policymakers to become more confident in their negotiations with business. The 1980 Bayh-Dole act that allowed publicly funded research to be patented says that government should have a say on the prices of the drugs. The fact government has never exercised this right shows who has the upper hand.
But things can change. Innovation policy should be linked to corporate governance – why should companies that spend more on share buybacks than R&D benefit from public research funds? Then "intelligent" R&D tax credits could be created, linked not to the income generated from R&D but the research labour hired to conduct it (as introduced in the Netherlands).
Government could also retain a golden share of the intellectual property rights (patents) which public research produces, and/or make sure that the prices of the new drugs reflect how the taxpayer paid for the most high-risk research. And, finally, given the high dependence of the industry on publicly -funded R&D, do not allow acquisitions that undermine the underlying research base the companies themselves should commit to - and for which they constantly request handouts.
In short, we need to start fostering a more symbiotic innovation eco-system. It's time to put an end to the current, increasingly parasitic one. We could start by realising that government does have power to actively shape and create markets, and not just fix broken ones.