Friday, January 05, 2007

Stem Cell Market Fever: A Cooler Perspective

Are stem cell stocks really rising because of Democratic control of the House of Representatives? Probably not.

Are markets truly rational? Are stock analysts always well-informed? Probably not.

The questions come up because of a few articles concerning the sharp run-up in the price of some stem cell companies, including those based in California, in the last two days. The Associated Press (in the San Jose Mercury News and elsewhere) attributed the increase to the improved prospects of House passage of a measure aimed at encouraging federal embryonic stem cell research.

These daily trading stories are usually ripped off by relatively inexperienced reporters who grab the quickest and catchiest explanations for price rises. Some of those come from analysts who may not be well-informed and who do not understand that a presidential veto is likely again on the stem cell bill – a veto that probably will not be overridden. Even if it is, the National Institutes of Health are already hard-pressed financially and are not likely to come up with major increases in ESC reasearch funding, certainly nothing on the level of California's $3 billion giveaway. Beyond that, the markets have already factored in Democratic control of Congress, which is months-old news.

A more likely cause of the upsurge in stem cell stocks is the wave that boosted biotech stocks generally because of good news about Amgen, among other things. Here is what the Wall Street Journal had to say this morning:
"Amgen, (Nasdaq) the second-largest U.S. biotech company by market value, behind Genentech, gained 2.93, or 4.3%, to 71.33. Bear Stearns upgraded Amgen's shares to 'outperform,' saying the stock already reflects potential impacts from Roche's prospective introduction of a competitive anemia drug. If Roche's drug doesn't reach the market, the upside for Amgen's stock could be 'dramatic,' Bear Stearns said."
Stem cell stocks are thinly traded but may be carried along in a burst of buying in the biotech sector. Traders sometimes spread their bets across a sector.

Also not mentioned in the stories is the impact of automated trading programs that trigger purchases as an entire sector moves, in other words, a computerized bandwagon, which may or may not be rational depending on your point of view.

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