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October 17, 2019

Global Market Comments
October 17, 2019
Fiat Lux

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October 3, 2019

Global Market Comments
October 3, 2019
Fiat Lux

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AI and the New Healthcare

The first major industry to be fundamentally disrupted by artificial intelligence will be healthcare, America’s last 19th-century industry.

Major diseases are being cured at such a dramatic pace that if you can survive the next decade, chances are you can live forever.

DNA is the software of life and spending $3 billion to decode it by 2003 was the best investment the U.S. government ever made.

These are the opinions expressed by longtime friend Dr. Ray Kurzweil. These ideas may seem like the ravings of a mad lunatic. However, Kurzweil long ago became used to such criticisms. The funny thing is, his very long-term predictions have a nasty habit of coming true.

For Kurzweil is the head of engineering at Google (GOOG), the co-founder of the Singularity University, and an early AI evangelist.

The outer shell of the human brain, the neocortex, is where we do all of our higher thinking, problem-solving and imagining. It first appeared in our pre-mammalian ancestors some 200 million years ago.

The neocortex enjoyed a sudden growth spurt 2 million years ago for reasons no one understands. Maybe that’s when we came out of the trees. This gave homo sapiens a huge advantage over all other life forms on earth.

The next step in our intellectual evolution will be carried out by AI. By connecting our neocortex to the Internet, we will improve our intelligence by a billion-fold. Imagine everyone you come in contact with is a billion times smarter than they are today.

Ironically, such advances in human bionic connections have been greatly advanced by our recent wars in the Middle East, which created large numbers of quadriplegic veterans desperate for contact with the outside world.

Defense research dollars have poured in to meet this need. Last year, I saw a classified video of a disabled soldier operating a computer just by thinking about keystrokes.

Kurzweil calls such a connection the Singularity, where humans and computers become one. He envisions this taking place on a large scale by the mid-2040s.

We already know how this will affect civilization because the billion-fold improvement in intelligence is already available in our hand in the form of a smartphone. All that is missing is the human/machine connection.

Over the past 1,000 years, human life expectancy has improved fourfold, from 19 to 80. As a result, a raft of new diseases has appeared only in the past century that show up late in life, such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia.

The problem with this is that a millennium is but a nanosecond in the course of human evolution. Human T-cells have not had the time to evolve to fend off an attack from a cancer cell, which is why the disease is ravaging the human race today. Cancer rates are up exponentially from the 19th century.

Fortunately, there is a way to speed up the evolutionary process. Microscopic nanobots the size of red blood cells can be designed to go after specific cancers, and then injected in swarms in your bloodstream to attack them.

Such technologies require precise manufacturing at the atomic level and will be available in the early 2030s. I have seen pictures of such nanobots myself under an electron microscope in the scientific literature.

Alternatively, with some diseases, such as diabetes, all we need to do is to reprogram our software (DNA) to produce more insulin. This can be done with monoclonal antibodies, whereby a length of bad DNA is excised and a good one installed.

By the end of 2017, the Food and Drug Administration had approved nearly 100 such molecules to deal with a whole range of genetic diseases. Click here for the list.

Such advances will soon lead to what Kurzweil calls “Longevity Escape Velocity,” where advances in medical research are taking place faster than the natural aging process. Then we will only have to deal with senescence cells, which are internally programmed to turn themselves off at a certain age. Presumably, monoclonal antibodies will be able to turn these back on as well.

Of course, the investment implications of all of this will be prodigious. Perhaps, that’s why the shares of the entire healthcare sector (XLV) and big pharma (XPH) have been on an absolute tear for the past two years.

I believe that technology and healthcare stocks will overwhelmingly be the major outperformers over the next two decades. We are seeing the profits from these revolutionary advances sill into companies such as Pfizer (PFE), Bristol Myers Squibb (BMY), and Merck (MRK).

However, all the healthcare advances in the world are not going to help you if you keep eating cheeseburger for lunch every day. One study I always like to cite took place during WWII when the global food supply shrank dramatically, and everyone was put on a strict mandatory diet. The incidence of every major disease fell by 30%.

At the end of the day, plenty of sleep, healthy eating, and exercise will always remain the greatest life extenders. Kurzweil himself has been an ardent vegetarian for most of his life.

As for me, I rather have a good steak once a month and settle for living only to 120.

Keep renewing those newsletter subscriptions!

 

 

 

The Next Cancer Cure?

July 17, 2019

Global Market Comments
July 17, 2019
Fiat Lux

SPECIAL BIOTECH ISSUE

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Five Biotech Stocks to Buy at the Bottom

No sector has been beaten, maligned, and abused more than the biotech sector in recent years. However, some of them are so bad they’ve become good, which piques my interest.

Investing in biotech stocks is not for the faint of heart. The road to developing and commercializing new drugs is long and riddled with hard battles, and an anxious investor won’t be able to sleep at night.

However, the returns offer incredible gains when everything falls into place. In this sector you’re almost buying lottery tickets rather than investing in shares.

In 1919, the term “biotechnology” was coined by a Hungarian agricultural engineer named Karl Ereky to define the merging of two industries: biology and technology. Almost a century later, Ereky’s vision has been realized with thousands of products and services available in the biotech market today. 

Despite the advancements of this industry though, the majority of the buy-and-hold investors choose to steer clear of biotech stocks — and for sensible reasons. 

It’s no secret that investing in biotechnology firms can be unnervingly risky. Since its advent, investors have been regaled with horror stories of costly stage three drug trials going bust or plummeting stock prices due to the expiration of critical patents. Needless to say, these stories have soured would-be investors on the whole biotech world.

However, inadequate information and a lack of understanding of how the biotech industry really operates along with reliance on the performance of only a handful of biotech stocks may have caused investors to miss out on attractive risk-reward relationships. Not all biotech investments lead to disastrous results.

You may be surprised to learn that shares of the biotech industry has collectively gone up by approximately 70% in the past five years. This proves just how much these biotech companies rewarded their enduring. Success in biotech investing is simply a matter of buckling down to do your homework and applying a tad of common sense. 

Throughout this decade, one sector has managed to outperform the S&P 500 index (SPY) in terms of total return annually: the healthcare sector. While there’s no guarantee that healthcare stocks will go on to beat the S&P 500 in the years to come, the fact remains that people will continue to need medicines as well as healthcare services regardless of the country’s economic status. The increasing reliance of the healthcare industry on technology has put the biotech industry smack dab in the center of all these demands. 

I’ll give you some of my favorite plays in the sector.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals (VRTX)

Big-cap pharmaceutical company Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc currently has the monopoly on the treatment of cystic fibrosis (CF) with three approved drugs out in the market, KalydecoOrkambi, and Symdeko, along with several promising products in the pipeline to target other auto-immune diseases. 

In June, Vertex turned its sights on the genetic therapy part of the business via an expansion of its ongoing collaboration with CRISPR Therapeutics (CSPR). Vertex also purchased gene therapy firm Exonics Therapeutics to strengthen its foothold in this revolutionary technology. 

Given the spectacular success of Vertex with CF treatments, its work with gene therapy is projected to bring in another blockbuster deal to the company. To ensure its monopoly in the CF market, Vertex has been aggressively seeking additional regulatory approvals to cater to younger CF patients. If the company succeeds, its target market of 75,000 CF patients would gain an additional 44,000.

Vertex is not limiting its efforts in this field though. To seal its position as the leader in CF treatments, the company is looking at developing triple-drug therapies as the next big development in their treatment plans. It has been performing clinical trials on three varying triple-drug combinations. If approved, these therapies would be able to address approximately 90% of the total number of CF patients. 

As for the remaining 10% with no operational CF treatment, Vertex aims to address this via its work on gene editing alongside CRISPR Therapeutics. Aside from CF, the two companies have commenced clinical studies on applying gene-editing therapies to treat rare blood diseases and sickle cell disease.  

Overall, Vertex is a certified outperformer in the world of big-cap biotech and provides good value to its shareholders.

Johnson & Johnson(JNJ)

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) is one of the most attractive names in the biotech space. While the lawsuits against it involving alleged toxic baby powder endanger (JNJ)’s equity, the company is still hailed as one of the most notable innovators in the healthcare ecosystem. 

The company recently disclosed its progress in developing an AIDS vaccine. Although the negative headlines about the company can be a cause of concern to some, it could turn out to be a win-win situation for long-term investors who can then take advantage of the bargain basement stock price. 

(JNJ) has reinforced its stronghold in the fields of neuroscience, oncology, and immunology with these three areas generating over 72% of the company’s drug sales in the first quarter. In fact, (JNJ) recently received an FDA approval on its myeloma drug Dexamethasone. Its collaborative work on cancer treatment with Celgene’s (CELG) Revlimid and its own Darzalex received the FDA’s green light as well. 

Apart from developing new treatments and medications, (JNJ) is also moving forward in the development of its robotic sector. Earlier this year, the company purchased robotic surgery firm Auris Health for $3.4 billion in an effort to dethrone the current sector leader Intuitive Surgical (ISRG).

With all that is in its drug and services pipeline along with its earlier successes, (JNJ) raised its 2019 outlook despite its legal woes. The biopharma giant now anticipates a sales growth of 2.5% to 3.5%. Meanwhile, its adjusted earnings per share now stands somewhere in the range of $8.53 and $8.63 per share.

Celgene (CELG)

Celgene (CELG) is one biotech stock that you can get on the cheap. It offers shares trading at only 7.4 times expected earnings. 

With its shares trading well below the total book value courtesy of the pending acquisition by Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), investors would be hard-pressed not to take advantage of the opportunity to add a company leading in the development of treatments for cancer, blood disorders, and immunological conditions. 

Aside from the looming acquisition, another reason for Celgene’s dirt-cheap stock involves the decision to sell blockbuster immunology drug Otezla to allow Bristol-Myers Squibb to appease the Federal Trade Commission’s concerns over the deal. Nonetheless, Celgene’s remaining drugs still perform well in the market. 

Its blood cancer drugs, Revlimid and Pomalyst, are the leading go-to drug for multiple myeloma. Revlimid has been approved to treat two additional rare blood diseases, myelodysplastic syndromes and mantle cell lymphoma. Another winner in Celgene’s lineup is its solid tumor drug Abraxane, which has been approved for advanced breast cancer treatment along with non-small-cell lung cancer and advanced pancreatic cancer.

Celgene’s pipeline is loaded with promising winners as well, with myelofibrosis drug Fedratinib and multiple sclerosis treatment Ozanimod up for FDA approval this year. Three additional blood disease drugs including Luspatercept are also in the works along with a cell therapy called Liso-cel, which engineers the body’s immune cells to target particular types of cancer. Celgene’s work with Bluebird Bio is expected to bring another cell therapy procedure called bb2121, which is anticipated to bolster the biopharma firm’s dominance on the multiple myeloma market. 

Amgen (AMGN)

With its ability to flex its financial muscles at will, Amgen (AMGN) has accumulated nearly $30 billion in cash and investments. In the past four years, it has recorded an average annual net profit of roughly $6 billion.

The company has achieved tremendous success in developing groundbreaking technology and edging out its competition courtesy of its innovative treatments like the post-chemo therapy called Neulasta. Its cholesterol drug Repatha and arthritis medication Enbrel are both impressive performers in the market as well.  

Despite its aggressive drive to acquire small biopharma firms, Amgen is actually a pretty safe investment. Throughout the years, the company has made a conscious effort to diversify its portfolio to steer clear of dependence on a single product. 

In fact, no single drug provides more than one-fourth of Amgen’s total income. Among its products, only two drugs generate over a tenth of its revenue. This pattern of revenue diversity doesn’t stop here either as Amgen’s pipeline has nine Phase 3 trials and an additional five Phase 2 trials. 

Illumina (ILMN)

One of the incredible developments in healthcare involves the unlocking of the secrets of the human genome – and Illumina (ILMN) has been widely recognized as the leader in this field. In fact, this company has performed more than 90% of all gene sequencing procedures ever recorded. 

Branded as the “gold standard” for gene sequencing, Illumina’s highly accurate technology has turned the company into one of the leaders in the biotech space. Illumina is projected to dominate the industry for a very long time.  

More importantly, Illumina has managed to make these treatments affordable. Using Illumina’s technology, the cost of human genome therapy has been remarkably cut from a staggering $100 million back in 2002 to an affordable $1,000 today. 

Despite its potential, Illumina released lower-than-expected revenue guidance for this year. However, its track record indicates that the company has the tendency to underpromise but overdeliver. 

Its revolutionary gene sequencing equipment NovaSeq has made remarkable progress since its availability in 2017 and has yet to reach its peak. Illumina has been on the lookout for high-growth markets currently in their infancy in an effort to become a pioneering force in other fields. 

A good example of this is Illumina’s move on noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT), which has recently gained popularity among patients. The company released an updated and more powerful version of its fetal genome detector system VeriSeq this year. This technology offers the quickest processing time compared to its rivals.

Illumina is also looking to utilize gene sequencing to bolster cancer research efforts and screening through its TruSight Oncology 500, which is a molecular test used to detect lung cancer. Since its release in 2018, the company has been seeking ways to expand TruSight’s application to include blood tests capable of detecting the very early stages of several types of cancer.

Another significant growth driver for Illumina is population genomics, with the United States, France, Singapore, England, and other countries already utilizing the company’s technology. Consumer genomics also shows a promising fiscal advancement for Illumina. To date, the company has been catering to major providers including Ancestry and 23andMe. Illumina even created its own genealogical spinoff called Helix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 12, 2019

Global Market Comments
June 12, 2019
Fiat Lux

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Amgen’s Big Lung Cancer Breakthrough

I recently heard that some of my hedge fund friends were loading up on Amgen (AMGN) and now I know why. It’s a company I know well because my UCLA biochemistry professor was its first chairman.

Amgen has accomplished a major medical breakthrough. The company has revealed that its experimental drug, AMG 510, exhibited the ability to significantly shrink the size of tumors by 50%. The results were obtained from early-stage trials performed on advanced lung cancer patients.

In a nutshell, AMG 510 could become the first-ever approved treatment that can target a mutated gene called KRAS which is one of the most common mutations involved in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). The American Cancer Society identified NSCLC as the leading cause of cancer death, accounting for a stunning 85% of lung cancers.

For decades, researchers have been searching for ways to address KRAS mutations, with the sought-after solution dubbed as the “the great white whale of drug discovery.” With the first proof-of-concept presented a mere six years ago, the rapid development of Amgen’s new drug has impressed researchers in the field.

Simply put, this drug will be a game changer for particular types of cancer. Subsequently, its success would mean massive profits for Amgen shareholders.

The announcement of AMG 510’s promising results saw a jump in Amgen shares of 6.1% delivering a new two-year high. While this product remains in its initial phase, the fact that this cancer drug addresses a vital unmet need in oncology makes it a prime candidate in becoming the next blockbuster drug for Amgen.

Aside from lung cancer, this drug is also aimed at providing treatment for colorectal cancer and nearly uncurable pancreatic cancer (of which Steve Jobs died). To date, AMG 510 sales are estimated to initially reach more than $1 billion a year and peak at $2 billion.

With the extremely massive market for this particular drug, it comes as no surprise that Amgen is not alone in the race.

So far, two more biopharma companies are looking to develop similar medications: GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK) and Mirati Therapeutics (MRTX). While the former has yet to reveal the covalent inhibitor drug it’s currently developing, reports indicate that Mirati’s work involves a drug called MRTX849. Aside from these, no other information has been released by the two companies.

While these are encouraging results vis-à-vis its oncology department, how is Amgen doing so far this year with the rest of its business?

Based on its earnings report in the first quarter of 2019, Amgen recorded $5.6 billion in total revenues. This matches the amount the company reported during the same quarter in 2018. Despite the promising projects in its pipeline, Amgen’s product sales saw a 1% dip globally.

However, its new products showed double-digit increases in the first quarter. Osteoporosis and hypercalcemia drug Prolia reported a 20% increase while cardiovascular medication Repatha also showed a 15% revenue jump during the first quarter. Even the revenues for relapsed multiple myeloma treatment Kyprolis showed a 10% rise in this period.

As for its earnings per share (EPS), Amgen is coming in at $12.53. This indicates an EPS growth of 14.8% this year, which could lead to a projected 5.25% EPS growth for 2020.

Meanwhile, Amgen’s positive outlook particularly with AMG 510 as an additional blockbuster drug in its portfolio prompted the company to adjust its earnings expectations for this year. In terms of its expected revenue, Amgen raised it from $21.8 billion to $22.9 billion range to $22 billion to $22.9 billion.

 

 

March 14, 2019

Global Market Comments
March 14, 2019
Fiat Lux

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Learn More About Me Than You Probably Want to Know

As you may imagine, the most interesting man in the world is impossible to shop for when it comes to Christmas and birthdays.

So, it was no surprise when I opened a box and found a DNA testing kit from 23 and Me. So, I spit into a small test tube to humor the kids, mailed it off, and forgot about it.

I have long been a keeper of the Thomas family history and legends, so it would be interesting to learn which were true and which were myths.

A month later, what I discovered was amazing.

For a start, I am related to Louis the 16th, the last Bourbon king of France who was beheaded after the 1789 revolution.

I am a direct descendant from Otzi the Iceman who is 5,000 years old and was recently discovered frozen in an Alpine glacier. He currently resides in mummified form in an Italian museum.

Oh, one more. The reason I don’t have any hair on my back is that I carry 346 gene fragments that I inherited directly from a Neanderthal. Yes, I am part caveman, although past girlfriends suspected as much.

There were other conclusions.

I have a higher than average probability of getting prostate cancer, advanced macular degeneration (my mother had it), celiac disease, and melanoma.

The service also offered to introduce me to 1,107 close relatives around the world who I didn’t know, mostly in New York, California, and Florida.

The French connection I already knew about. During the 16th century, my ancestors rebelled against the French kings over the non-payment of taxes and were exiled to Louisiana. Fleeing a malaria epidemic, they moved up the Mississippi River to St. Louis and stayed there for 200 years. When gold was discovered in California in 1849, they joined a wagon train west. We have been here ever since.

I am half Italian and have birth certificates going back to 1800 to prove it. But 23 and Me says that I am only 40.7% Italian (see table below). It turns out that your genes show not only where you came from, but also who invaded your home country since the beginning of time.

In Italy’s case that would include the ancient Greeks, Vikings, Arabs, the Normans, French, Germans, and the Spanish, thus making up my other 9.3%. Your genes also reflect the slaves your ancestors owned, for obvious reasons.

23 and Me was founded in 2006 by Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google founder Sergei Brin. It is owned today by her and a few other partners. Its name is based on the fact that humans’ entire DNA code is found on 23 chromosomes.

23 and Me and other competitors like Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, and Living DNA have sparked a DNA boom that has lead to once unimaged economic and social consequences. DNA promises to be for the 21st century what electricity was to the 20th century. The investment consequences are amazing.

Talk about unintended consequences with a turbocharger.

A common ancestor going back to the early 1800s enabled Sacramento police to capture the Golden State killer. Unsolved for 40 years, it took a week for them to find him after a DNA sample was sent to a DNA database.

Thirty and 40-year cold cases are now being solved on a weekly basis. Long ago kidnapped children are being reunited with parents after decades of separation.

California just froze all executions. That’s because DNA evidence showed that approximately 30% of all capital case convictions were of innocent men. That was enough for me to change my own view on the death penalty. The error rate was just too high. Dozens of men around the country have been freed after new DNA evidence surfaced, some after serving 30 years or more in prison.

23 and Me had some medical advice for me as well. They strongly recommended that I get tested for diabetes and high blood pressure as these maladies are rife among my ancestors. They even name the specific guilty gene and haploid group.

This explains why major technology companies, like Amazon (AMZN) and Apple (AAPL), are pouring billions of dollars into genetic research.

I have long had a personal connection with DNA research. I worked on the team that sequenced the first ever string of DNA at UCLA in 1974. It was groundbreaking work. We obtained our raw DNA from Dr. James Watson of Harvard who, along with Francis Crick, was the first to discover its three-dimensional structure. As for my UCLA professor, Dr. Winston Salser, he went on to found Amgen (AMGN) in 1980 and became a billionaire.

The developments that are taking place today then seemed to us like science fiction that was hundreds of years into the future. To see the paper created by this work please click here.
 
As research into DNA advances, it is about to pervade every aspect of our lives. Do you have a high probability of getting a disease that costs a million dollars to cure and is counting on getting health insurance? Think again. That may well bring forward single-payer national healthcare for the US, as only the government could absorb that kind of liability.

And if you can only hang on a few years, you might live forever. That’s when DNA-based monoclonal antibodies and gene editing are about to cure all major human diseases. DNA is about to become central to your physical health and your financial health as well.

To learn more about 23 and Me please visit their website here.

Maybe the next time I visit the Versaille Palace outside of Paris, I should ask for a set of keys now that I’m a relative? Unfortunately, it’s much more likely that I’ll get the keys to my Neanderthal ancestor’s cave.

 

 

 

March 5, 2019

Global Market Comments
March 5, 2019
Fiat Lux

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