Schering-Plough

(SGP)

reiterated Tuesday that cash flow from operations will be insufficient to fund working capital, dividends and capital expenditures, but added that it has "adequate internal and external resources" to meet its financial requirements. The company said the problem would extend "for the remainder of 2003 and possibly beyond."

But perhaps because Schering-Plough has said essentially the same thing in May and in July -- in its first- and second-quarter filings with the

Securities and Exchange Commission

-- its stock took only a modest hit, losing 0.9%, or 15 cents, to $16.10. There were no immediate changes in analysts' ratings.

Schering-Plough stated that those "internal and external resources" include cash, short-term investments, lines of credit and access to global capital markets. The company's comments were contained in a question-and-answer sheet for investors that also was filed Tuesday with the SEC.

Schering-Plough restated many of the comments that Fred Hassan, the chairman and chief executive, delivered during a conference call with analysts and investors July 23. Hassan joined the company in April.

When asked, during the conference call, if the company's dividend were imperiled, Hassan was noncommittal. He said he was examining all financial issues related to the company's future. He added that he was "impressed with the strength of our balance sheet." But he gave no timetable for his recommendation to the board of directors.

Hassan faces a difficult decision on the 17-cent quarterly dividend, the latest of which was declared on June 24 to be paid Aug. 26 to shareholders of record as of Aug. 1.

On the one hand, if he cuts the quarterly payout, he will free up cash to help finance operations and research. One the other hand, if he cuts the dividend, he would be doing what no chief executive of a major U.S. drug company has done in at least 20 years.

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(One tangential exception was the old Monsanto. In October 1997, after having spun of its chemical business, Monsanto cut its quarterly dividend to 3 cents from 16 cents. Monsanto -- which then included the G.D. Searle & Co. drug company as well as agricultural chemicals, crop biotechnology and nutrition products -- cut the dividend to help finance the heavy research needs of its biotech and drug businesses. Three years later, Monsanto was acquired by Pharmacia Corp., whose CEO was Hassan.)

Schering-Plough's financial uncertainty was highlighted two weeks ago when Standard & Poor's lowered its corporate credit rating to A-plus from AA-minus while also lowering its short-term corporate credit and commercial paper ratings to A-1 from A-1-plus. S&P said its outlook is negative.

The credit rating agency cited greater-than-expected revenue declines in a Schering-Plough hepatitis drug and the financial shellacking from the prescription antihistamine Claritin's loss of patent protection and its approved conversion to over-the-counter status by the Food and Drug Administration.

S&P noted that the Kenilworth, N.J. company still had strong investment grade rating due to a diverse product portfolio, the promise of a cholesterol-lowering drug Zetia being marketed with Merck and "a sold financial profile."

Several analysts have been either predicting or advocating a dividend cut.

For example, Richard Evans of Bernstein Research told clients in an August 8 research note that "in light of falling revenues and inadequate cost reductions," he predicts a dividend cut next year. Evans rates the stock as underperform; he doesn't own shares and his firm doesn't have an investment banking relationship with the company.

A week earlier, Neil Sweig, of Fulcrum Global Partners, wrote clients that he believes the dividend could be cut by 30% to 50% in the fourth quarter of this year. Sweig has a neutral rating on the stock; he doesn't own shares and his firm doesn't have an investment banking relationship with Schering-Plough.

Schering-Plough's latest description of its financial condition showed that short-term borrowing and the current portion of long-term debt jumped to $1.88 billion by June 30 compared with $1.22 billion by March 31.

By midyear, the company had $3.63 billion in cash and cash equivalents as well as $479 million in short-term investments of time deposits with maturities of five months or less.

However, "substantially all" of this financial cushion is held by wholly owned foreign-based subsidiaries, whereas most of the short-term debt and current portion of long-term debt is owed by wholly owned U.S.-based subsidiaries.

And if the company decided to tap the financial cushion to assist U.S. cash flow needs, it could owe higher taxes, Schering-Plough said.

"Presently management does not expect to draw upon" these funds to aid U.S. operations, preferring instead to borrow more, the company added. "Management believes it has the ability to access the financial resources to fund any such needs." But "if circumstances change," Schering-Plough said it could seek the funds from its foreign operations.