At Friday’s close, only about 4% of U.S. stocks with a market capitalization had posted positive returns in 2020. Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) stock, which has gained 44% year-to-date, is one of those winners.
Many of the YTD gainers, including MRNA, have rallied on hopes that they can actually benefit from the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, of that small cohort of winners, roughly one-third — again, including Moderna — are biotech stocks.
To be fair, a few of those stocks have rallied for different reasons. Forty Seven (NASDAQ:FTSV), for instance, is being acquired by Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD). Biotechs in general should hold up reasonably well in a bear market, as they have less exposure to macroeconomic factors than most other companies.
Even considering those factors, the gains in biotech are too broad and too much. Not every company is going to win in vaccines (where Moderna is focused), treatment or testing.
Those that do may not see the financial benefits which some investors expect. And higher stock prices now incorporate those benefits.
To be sure, MRNA stock is better than many other coronavirus stocks — but that’s a low bar to clear. The strategy of chasing coronavirus results is an echo of those that have failed before. At this point, the trade is over.
We’ve Been Here Before
As many others have pointed out, the 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa sparked a similar wave of speculative buying. My InvestorPlace colleague Matt McCall has highlighted the parabolic rallies seen at the time by protective equipment manufacturers like Lakeland Industries (NASDAQ:LAKE) and Alpha Pro Tech (NYSE:APT).
Those rallies quickly faded. Many other stocks saw similar short-term pops on hopes they could treat the virus — only to wind up with significant long-term losses:
- Aethlon Medical (NASDAQ:AEMD) quadrupled in a matter of months. AEMD stock is now down over 99% from its 2014 highs.
- NewLink Genetics actually wound up getting an Ebola vaccine approved — in late 2019. The company still had to execute a reverse merger, after which it renamed itself Lumos Pharma (NASDAQ:LUMO). It has a market capitalization of $7 million.
- Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX) doubled on hopes that it would develop an Ebola vaccine. It’s rallied sharply again in 2020 on coronavirus hopes — and still sits 90% below early 2015 highs.
That’s just a sampling of what happened in 2014-2015. We’ve seen similar trends elsewhere since. The Zika epidemic in 2015-2016 led some small biotechs to explode; they faded almost without exception.
Even outside of biotech, these speculative bubbles have happened regularly. Cannabis stocks went crazy in 2017 and again early last year. Blockchain stocks soared in late 2017 as well: Riot Blockchain (NASDAQ:RIOT) has lost 98% of its value.
Time and again, these rallies fade.
Where’s The Edge?
For most coronavirus stocks, this rally too will fade. There’s one important point investors need to remember: not everyone can win.
And so an investor even considering buying a stock for potential success in coronavirus needs to ask: why will this company win? And what’s the ultimate prize?
As Michael Brush wisely argued at MarketWatch last week, the odds of picking the winner are low. That’s true even for industry experts, who may understand the advantages of varying drugs in development.
For those of us without medical degrees, we’re essentially throwing darts. But, again, given the massive rallies across the space — MRNA has added about $3 billion in market value this year — most, if not all, of the targets are pricing in some success to begin with.
And as Brush pointed out, the financial rewards may not be that high. Companies aren’t going to price the vaccine at unsustainable levels. By the time vaccines are approved, their necessity may be lower. A Gilead executive already has said that the commercial (i.e., profit-making) opportunity for its potential treatment, remdesivir, will come “much later down the line“.
Picking a coronavirus stock without expertise is playing a lottery with negative returns. As another MarketWatch piece highlighted this week, there are at least 15 companies working on vaccines or treatments.
Most will fail. An investor even considering buying any of those 15 stocks better have a good reason why it won’t.
The Case for MRNA Stock
After all that caution, it’s fair to make a key point: Moderna is a bit of different play from many of the small- and nano-cap stocks that have rallied as the coronavirus has spread.
First, Moderna had real value before the pandemic. The company closed 2019 with a market capitalization over $6.5 billion. Its 2018 initial public offering was the “biggest biotech IPO ever,” as Dana Blankenhorn detailed at the time.
Its focus on “messenger RNA” (hence the MRNA ticker) creates a pipeline that goes beyond a coronavirus vaccine. If a small-cap biotech that has soared fails to develop a coronavirus vaccine, that company may fail. Moderna almost certainly will not.
Second, Moderna is off to an early lead in developing the vaccine. It’s shipped the first coronavirus vaccine for human testing (which already has begun). Given the amount of money being poured into the space by private companies and public agencies, a first-mover advantage is a key edge.
Now, does even success support a $3 billion increase in the company’s market capitalization? I’m skeptical, to be honest. It’s going to take time for the vaccine to be approved. It will take longer for Moderna to be able to price the vaccine for significant profit without raising the ire of governments worldwide.
The existing pipeline elsewhere does at least provide some support for the stock if coronavirus hopes falter. And so I’d recommend MRNA stock over other coronavirus plays.
But that’s not necessarily the key point: there’s just no need to chase these stocks. The easy money has been made. History shows that of those who stick around, few, if any, are going to profit.
Vince Martin has covered the financial industry for close to a decade for InvestorPlace.com and other outlets. He has no positions in any securities mentioned.