What a difference a year makes. Last April, biotech stocks were buzzing as red-hot (and supposedly embargoed) research abstracts for the big cancer confab held by the American Society of Clinical Oncology
were passed around Wall Street. Biotech stocks bounced up and down as traders and fund managers -- privy to the early, inside scoop on what would be hot (and not) at the 2002 ASCO meeting -- made some money. It was a familiar-enough phenomenon to have its own label on Wall Street: the ASCO effect. That game appears to be over. With one month to go before the 2003 Super Bowl of cancer meetings convenes in Chicago, there isn't an ASCO research abstract to be found. Sure, some rumors are making the rounds, but at nowhere near the velocity of years past. Biotech stocks have enjoyed a nice run of late, and you can be certain that investors are still placing ASCO bets, but not with the confidence and certainty of last year. ASCO 2003 is being played with brand-new rules, and Wall Street is still trying to figure out how best to work the system. This is, of course, what ASCO had in mind when the nonprofit medical research organization scuttled its time-honored, yet controversial, practice of distributing (privately) research abstracts to members one month before the start of its annual meeting. This year, the party bags -- complete with a telephone-book-sized stack of research abstracts -- aren't being handed out until attendees walk through the door of the convention hall.
"This is going to be a ... fiasco," says one sell-side analyst, anonymously, of course, because he doesn't want to tick off ASCO. I talked to a few sell-siders to see how they were going to be handling ASCO this year and, generally speaking, it sounds as if analysts will be very busy over the weekend writing up research reports and composing flash messages for clients so they can be prepared for Monday trading. It remains to be seen how diligently analysts abide by ASCO's rather-stringent embargo policy, which states that research abstract data cannot be released publicly until the time of presentation at the conference. "I don't see how ASCO can expect people to not comment on the abstract book after it is made available," says Dennis Harp, biotech analyst at Deutsche Banc Securities. Harp says he's still looking over the ASCO rules, but he expects to offer his clients his "opinion" on research abstracts, whether they're embargoed or not. Once the data are released, Harp says he will publish more complete research reports to more fully explain the data and his position. "I have to advise my clients," he adds. Banc of America Securities analyst Mike King says he's bringing at least one associate to ASCO this year to help handle the heavy research load during the first two days of the conference. "I'm going to grab my abstract book and write up what I can," he says. One of his concerns, however, is that because data in research abstracts are preliminary, they won't be as valuable as in the past, because final data will be released almost simultaneously.
Fund managers also are taking the tag-team approach to ASCO this year. "We'll all be there," said one biotech trader who works at a New York biotech hedge fund. "We'll grab the abstract book and use fax machines, email and BlackBerries to get what we need in time for Monday." Another hedge fund manager says he's not letting ASCO get in the way of his investments. He'll be using his contacts to figure out data before the meeting even begins. "Without abstracts, this is a little harder, so we're probably going to be playing fewer names than in the past," he says. This year's ASCO confab is not overflowing with new data, but companies expected to make waves include ImClone Systems ( IMCL), Abgenix ( ABGX), Genentech ( DNA), OSI Pharmaceuticals ( OSIP) and Onyx Pharmaceuticals ( ONXX), among others.