UPDATE 4-AbbVie forecasts slower Humira growth
* 2013 EPS forecast, excluding items, $3.03 to $3.13 per share
* Street's earnings-per-share forecast: $3.08
* AbbVie shares fall 0.8 pct
By Ransdell Pierson
Jan 30 (Reuters) - AbbVie, the pharmaceuticals business spun off earlier this month by Abbott Laboratories , forecast 2013 earnings in line with Wall Street forecasts but slowing sales growth for Humira, its blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis drug.
The company on Wednesday said it expects low double-digit sales growth for Humira this year. Sales of the drug, by far the company's biggest product, jumped 17 percent last year to $9.27 billion.
"Their Humira growth forecast is a little less than people expected, but our view is that it's a conservative estimate," said Morningstar analyst Damien Conover.
Conover said he expects Humira's sales to climb 17 percent in 2013, matching the growth seen in 2012. He noted that Abbott had been known for issuing its own conservative Humira forecasts, with actual growth typically outpacing projections.
Industry analysts, during a conference call with AbbVie executives, expressed concern that Humira's track record of strong growth could become a "curse" once it slows down.
AbbVie Chief Executive Richard Gonzalez replied that Humira should have "robust" growth for the foreseeable future.
One of the biggest concerns among investors is that a new oral treatment for rheumatoid arthritis from Pfizer Inc called Xeljanz could slow the growth of Humira, which is given by injection.
Gonzalez said AbbVie has been tracking sales of Xeljanz since it was approved in November, and is not overly concerned about its potential threat.
"We don't see any trends there that are troublesome," Gonzalez said.
AbbVie said it expects full-year 2013 earnings of $3.03 to $3.13 per share, excluding special items. Analysts, on average expected $3.08 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
AbbVie said it expects net earnings this year of $2.66 to $2.76 per share. It forecast 2013 sales somewhat above $18 billion, similar to sales for its products last year, as generic competition hits demand for its drugs to control cholesterol.
The company said it is counting on approvals of new medicines that could drive company growth by the second half of 2015.
Abbott last week said global fourth-quarter sales of branded drugs that now belong to AbbVie rose 7.4 percent to $5.14 billion.
That topped estimates of some industry analysts, including Wells Fargo's Larry Biegelsen, who had expected $4.8 billion. The rise would have been 8.5 percent if not for the stronger dollar, which lowers the value of sales in overseas markets.
Quarterly sales of Humira jumped 23 percent to $2.68 billion, about $200 million above some analyst forecasts. The growth was a marked acceleration from the prior two quarters and underscores how reliant AbbVie is on Humira, which is expected this year to become the world's top-selling medicine.
The company's second-biggest product is AndroGel, a testosterone gel to treat conditions that result from a lack of the male hormone. It had fourth-quarter sales of $373 million.
AbbVie said it plans to steadily increase dividends, but expects no major share-repurchase initiatives in the short or long term. Company executives also said they are not on the hunt for big acquisitions, but are interested in smaller "tuck in" deals.
Abbott, nicknamed "new Abbott," continues to sell medical devices, diagnostics, nutritional products and generic drugs. It and AbbVie are both located in suburban Chicago.
AbbVie's shares fell 31 cents to $37 in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.