Eli Lilly falls 5 percent on sluggish growth in animal health, as it weighs options for the unit

  • Eli Lilly beats Street earnings expectations for the fourth quarter.
  • The pharmaceutical company raises its 2018 guidance thanks to the new tax law.
  • Lilly expects to make a decision on its animal health unit on its July earnings call.

Eli Lilly shares slid 5 percent on Wednesday over concerns about its animal health unit and pricing in the diabetes care market.

The animal health segment's fourth-quarter revenue decreased 6 percent from the year earlier. Lilly CEO Dave Ricks told analysts the company expects slightly negative growth in the first half of 2018 but eight product launches will drive top-line growth later in the year.

Lilly has said it's considering strategic options for the animal health business, Elanco. Ricks said the company is on track to announce a decision on its second-quarter earnings call in July.

The segment's sluggish results worried some investors who wondered whether the animal health unit can function on its own without a growth vehicle, said Guggenheim analyst Tony Butler.

"Would you want to hang on to the particular animal health stock as a standalone entity if it does not grow?" Butler said.

Pricing around Lilly's diabetes portfolio also caused some concern. Enrique Conterno, head of the diabetes business, said the company continues to see pressure on pricing across all its diabetes products.

Despite the difficulties in animal health and diabetes, Lilly's slew of new pharmaceutical products helped the company beat fourth-quarter earnings estimates, while the new tax law boosted its 2018 earnings guidance.

Here's how Eli Lilly did compared with what Wall Street expected:

  • EPS: $1.14 vs. $1.07 predicted by analysts polled by Thomson Reuters.
  • Revenue: $6.2 billion vs. the poll expectations of $5.9 billion.

In the fourth quarter, the pharmaceutical company reported a net loss of $1.7 billion, or $1.58 per share, compared with net income of $771 million, or 73 cents per share, in the year-ago quarter.

However, after stripping out special items, such as $1.9 billion associated with the new tax law, the company earned $1.2 billion, or $1.14 per share, above Street estimates of $1.07 per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

Lilly posted revenue of $6.2 billion, up 7 percent from a year ago and above expectations of $5.9 billion. The company credited the increase to volume growth from new pharmaceutical products. The segment grew 9 percent year-over-year.

New products, including Trulicity, Cyramza, Taltz, Basaglar, Jardiance, Lartruvo, Olumiant, Verzenio and Portrazza, drove 12 percent volume growth and represented 23 percent of total revenue in the quarter.

"We're in the middle of a growth cycle on the top line really driven by new product launches," Ricks told CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Lilly's effective tax rate is expected to be 18 percent for 2018, down from 20.5 percent in 2017. The company boosted its adjusted earnings per share guidance for the year to a range of $4.81 to $4.91, thanks to the new tax law. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had projected earnings of $4.68 per share.

The new law will allow Lilly to access more than $9 billion of cash and investments, Chief Financial Officer Josh Smiley said on a call with analysts. The company doesn't plan to hang on to the money for long. It will spend it this year and next on a number of areas, including funding marketed and pipeline products, investing in business development, increasing the dividend and buying back shares.

"While tax reform does provide ready access to additional funds, it does not alter our business development priorities," Smiley said. "We'll continue to look for opportunities to augment our pipeline and to bolster our commercial presences in core therapeutic areas of diabetes, oncology, immunology, neurodegeneration and pain."

Licensing and acquisitions are both possibilities, Smiley said. He reiterated Lilly's focus on clinical assets.

Shares of Lilly fell 5.4 percent on the day.