AN FRANCISCO — Northern California is in for torrential rains this week, but water won’t be the only thing flooding the streets here.
The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference starts today, a four-day crush of crowded hallway conversations, hotel lobby meetings, and open-bar parties that will bring more than 9,000 biotech insiders to Union Square — though more than a few were delayed by the winter storms that socked the East Coast.
On everyone’s mind: Whether the multibillion-dollar sector, licking its wounds after a rough 2016, might get through the new year without seeing its shadow.
“It’s kind of a weird mood this year,” said Brian Skorney, a biotech analyst at Baird. “I don’t get the sense that people have a very definitive take. I think people are looking to figure out what the mood of everyone else is going to be.”
By virtually any measure, biopharma had a bad 2016. The Nasdaq biotech index fell about 20 percent from 2015, and once-bountiful initial public offerings slumped by 45 percent. Venture capital investments totalled just $6.6 billion, well below the record $10.3 billion in 2015, and buyouts dropped by more than 40 percent.
At J.P. Morgan, biotech pros will be looking for signs of market sentiment wherever they may appear.
“There used to be the joke that you could tell it was a great IPO market by how large the law firm parties were,” said Bruce Booth, a partner at Atlas Venture, which founds and funds biotech startups.
Those parties might be a bit more subdued this time around. Just a year and a half ago, it seemed like any firm with a moniker and a molecule could make its way onto the public markets. Recent months, however, have brought a barrage of harsh campaign rhetoric about rising drug prices, along with notable investor caution.
“Part of the exuberance of a few years ago was there was no restriction on what people wanted to do,” said Brian Gallagher, a partner at SR One, the venture capital arm of GlaxoSmithKline. “There was so much capital in the system that people got spoiled in a way.”
Investors now have “sharper pencils and more discipline,” said Nina Kjellson, general partner at biotech venture firm Canaan Partners.
“My general sense is that the criteria for public company today and going into 2017 are going to be a higher bar than in the past,” she said.
All that said, there’s optimism headed into 2017. In a survey of more than 300 of its investor clients, Evercore ISI reported that more than 60 percent believed biotech would outperform the broader market this year.
The surprise election of Donald Trump hasn’t done much to assuage industry fears about a drug pricing backlash, but one of his campaign promises on another front has made biotech investors enthusiastic. Why? They foresee a coming deal-making spree.
The world’s largest drug companies have tens of billions of dollars parked overseas, and, under current tax law, they have to cough up 35 percent of anything they bring back into the US. Trump has promised to lower that rate to around 10 percent, which the biotech industry hopes might lead the titans of pharma to spend their cash reserves on acquisitions.
And such a tide could raise biotech’s many boats. When companies are getting bought for top dollar, generalist investors are more willing to buy into biotech’s inherent risks. Such a warm sentiment makes it easier to pull off IPOs. A thriving public market, in turn, gives venture capitalists as easier path to getting returns on investments in biotech startups.
“It’s a very virtuous dynamic,” Kjellson said.
But investor sentiment is fickle, and a single tweet from the president-elect could turn biotech’s cautious optimism into dread.
That leaves the biotech industry, chastened by its recent swoon, headed into J.P. Morgan warily watching the flurry of deals, company launches, and hype-laden presentation that will unfold. Whether any of it will meaningfully impact the market — much less actual patients — remains to be seen.
“I certainly imagine there will be 25 companies that are up or down 25 percent next week,” Skorney said. “And I’m sure there’s going to be 150 press releases that do nothing.”