Abbott deal for St. Jude spurs company split talk

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Abbott Laboratories said on Thursday it would buy heart device company St. Jude Medical Inc for $25 billion, it set off a flurry of Wall Street speculation over whether Abbott Chief Executive Miles White is laying groundwork to split the company yet again.

Three years ago, White spun off Abbott’s fast-growing branded drugs business into a new company, AbbVie, buoyed by top-selling arthritis medicine Humira, which helped AbbVie shares double. Abbott retained medical devices, nutritionals, diagnostics and some generic medicines.

Now with St. Jude, Abbott is creating a cardiovascular device division with more than $8 billion in sales. Two months ago, White announced plans to buy a diagnostics company, Alere Inc, for $5.8 billion. With these two new businesses, the company is set up for yet another spin-off in two to three years, analysts and investors said.

White, however, sounded a cautionary noted when asked on a conference call with analysts if a spin-off of the combined cardiovascular businesses is in the offing.

“I think right now you should be anticipating the integration of St. Jude and the performance of the company overall going forward as a healthy growth company in the healthcare space,” White said.

All the same, analysts and investors say that historically in healthcare, the one-two step of an acquisition and then a spin-off has paid off for investors.

“Historically, when companies split, they perform quite well,” said BMO Capital Markets analyst Joanne Wuensch, saying this acquisition looks like a candidate for such an event. “We remember when Baxter bought (Swedish dialysis firm) Gambro that was sort of signal that it would eventually split into two.”

Baxter did spin off its biotech drugs business into Baxalta while retaining its hospital products and other businesses.

There has been similar speculation that Pfizer’s deal in February 2015 to buy Hospira for $15 billion was intended to make its off-patent drugs business more attractive as it contemplates selling that unit. Pfizer said it expects to make that decision by the end of this year.

Jeff Jonas, portfolio manager at Gabelli Funds, said he does not believe White will engineer another split for two to three years. Abbott will need to work on integration and paying down debt, and see how the rapidly changing market for medical devices evolves. “But he’s certainly kept that option open now,” said Jonas, whose firm owns shares in Abbott, St. Jude and Alere.

“I think he’d sell off the medical devices,” Jonas said. “Then you’d have nutritionals, generic drugs and diagnostics, which may or may not go with medical devices.”

Reporting by Bill Berkrot and Caroline Humer; Editing by Leslie Adler