Just when we thought the biotechnology rally was taking a breather, many biotech stocks got a second wind — and that’s good news for growth investors. Gaining exposure to the biotechnology sector makes sense for most investors — but the big question isn’t whether you play the biotech boom, but how you play it.
Let’s be clear: biotech stocks are the epitome of volatile, high-beta securities. While the NASDAQ Biotechnology Index is up 18% year-to-date, it has been a wild ride: up 21% from January to late February, down 21% from February to mid-April and up 24% since then.
Why do biotech stocks suffer such extreme fits and starts? Simply put, biotechnology is a big bet on highly promising, but extremely uncertain, new treatments created from living organisms like viruses, bacteria, DNA or other molecules. The lion’s share of biotech drugs flame out in early-stage testing — and only 40% of the drugs that clear the final stage of testing receive FDA approval.
That said, here are three hot ways to play the surging biotechnology sector now: An individual biotech stock, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) and a mutual fund:
Large-Cap Stock: Gilead Sciences (GILD)
When a mega-cap biotech stock has gained nearly 44% year to date, it makes sense to wonder whether the stock has been seriously overbought and all the potential upside has been priced in. However, that time-tested logic doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story when it comes to Gilead Sciences (GILD), a biotech stock that has a deep pipeline strong enough to crush Wall Street’s monster expectations.
Much of the credit goes to Sovaldi, the blockbuster Hepatitis C drug the company launched late last year. Despite howls of protest over the $84,000 price tag for a 12-week course of the drug, the emergence of cheaper treatments from Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), and even GILD’s plans to launch a cheaper version of Sovaldi for poorer countries, GILD’s strength is much more than a single popular drug.
GILD has promising new launches queued up over the next year, including new treatments for HIV, as well as Hepatitis C. Among those treatments is an all-oral, single-tablet regimen of ledipasvir and sofosbuvir for the treatment of hepatitis C. GILD also is awaiting data from the low-dose HIV inhibitor TAF, as well as the launch of idelalisib for difficult-to-treat cancers.
GILD shares have soared 72% in the past year, but the stock is still trading at less than 11 times forward earnings and has a puny price to earnings growth (PEG) ratio of 0.52.
Although GILD has dropped almost 4% in the past few trading sessions, I think this biotech stock’s small retreat is a quick breather before it moves higher — and that makes now a good time to buy on the pullback.
ETF: iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology Index Fund (IBB)
If you’re looking to gain exposure to a basket of biotech stocks, the iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology Index Fund (IBB) could be another good way to go. This exchange-traded fund (ETF) makes a lot of sense because diversification is a core tenet of investing — and IBB gives you a stake in 121 biotechnology stocks.
Unlike mutual funds, ETFs trade over a major exchange in real-time like stocks, and expenses tend to be lower than those of actively managed mutual funds that settle up at the end of the trading day; IBB’s expenses are just 0.48% — or $48 per $10,000 invested — which is average for biotech ETFs.
IBB, which has been around for 13 years, has $5.3 billion in assets under management. This ETF invests primarily in large, growth-oriented U.S. biotechnology companies and has a year-to-date return of 17%, a one-year return of 28% and a mind-blowing three-year return of 174%.
Mutual Fund: Fidelity Select Biotechnology (FBIOX)
If you’re looking to gain exposure to the biotechnology market, but prefer a fund that is well diversified and actively managed, the Fidelity Select Biotechnology (FBIOX) could be for you. This growth mutual fund has assets of $9.22 billion and includes micro-cap to mega-cap biotechnology stocks. FBIOX has a strong track record of performance and continues to soar — the biotechnology fund is up 17% year-to-date and has a five-year average return of nearly 30%.
FBIOX has delivered such strong performance in large part due to exceptional performance in mid-caps like Intercept Pharmaceuticals (ICTP), which has gained almost 300% this year. Fund Manager Rajiv Kaul has been the lead manager on FBIOX since Oct 2005.
Kaul’s expertise with biotech stocks combined with his portfolio management experience are two reasons FBIOX has delivered such strong returns. Kaul knows biotechnology very well and has the sector savvy and expertise to look at even some of the smallest players and identify game-changing developments in their pipelines.
The top three FBIOX holdings are Gilead Sciences, Biogen, Vertex Pharmaceuticals (VRTX), Amgen and Intercept Pharmaceuticals. This no-load mutual fund has an annual expense ratio of just 0.76% — considerably lower than the 1.39% category average. FBIOX has a minimum initial investment of $2,500.
As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.