CVS-Caremark Fights Off Ills

OKLAHOMA CITY -- CVS-Caremark's ( CVS) fourth-quarter earnings nearly doubled, beating Wall Street targets and soothing investors who've grown increasingly worried about a slowdown in the booming drug-delivery space.

The company saw profits jump a whopping 95% to $815 million in the latest quarter, boosted by the ambitious acquisition that combined a major drugstore chain with a leading pharmacy benefit manager.

Excluding merger-related costs, earnings per share of 58 cents came in three pennies ahead of Wall Street's estimate. Revenue, up 80% to $21.9 billion, topped analyst expectations as well.

The results sent shares of CVS-Caremark surging 5.6% to $38.06. They are now trading in the upper end of their 52-week range.

To be sure, industry investors have been craving some good news. Just last week, Wal-Mart ( WMT) rattled the market with suggestions that it could enter the lucrative PBM space. If so, the move could reshape an industry that has been monopolized by Caremark and its two chief rivals -- Medco ( MHS) and Express Scripts ( ESRX) -- for years.

Still, some industry experts felt uneasy even before that bombshell. Shortly before Wal-Mart announced its plans, in fact, an analyst downgraded Medco over concerns about a slowdown in the generic drug pipeline. While cheap generic drugs reduce PBM sales, they carry fat margins that can boost profits significantly.

CVS-Caremark, in fact, blamed generics for slowing its own pharmacy sales in the latest quarter. But the company's overall same-store growth -- which includes both pharmacy and front-end merchandise sales -- has deteriorated as well.

December proved to be an especially tough month, hurting CVS-Caremark and rivals Walgreen ( WAG) and Rite-Aid ( RAD) alike. Early this month, shares of all three companies fell sharply on news of weakness in the key same-store metric.

For its part, CVS-Caremark cited multiple challenges -- including poor weather, a slow flu season and "general economic conditions" -- when explaining the slowdown. Some worry that even drugstores will not be immune to a possible recession.

For now, however, CVS-Caremark sounds decidedly upbeat. When issuing its quarterly update, the company portrayed 2007 as "a milestone year" and promised even better times ahead.

"We remained focused on service, execution and expense control, which yielded exceptional performance," CEO Tom Ryan said on Thursday. "We also set the stage for significant future growth with the completion of our transformational merger.

"From this platform, we are creating a unique and differentiated position in the marketplace, which will enable us to reduce the costs and complexities of healthcare for payors and consumers, while improving outcomes."

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