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Pain Relief (for Some)

Pharma feels great – for now, anyway.

If there is a single industry in our indices that needs pain relief, it is biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. With big pharma’s business model deemed past its prime and biotech R&D progressing more slowly than the market had hoped, stocks in the sector have taken turns receiving poundings. Add to that the controversy over cox-2 inhibitors such as Merck’s Vioxx and Pfizer’s Celebrex, and investors could be forgiven for jumping ship. But the earnings engines inside nonpharma tech companies have been sputtering, reminding investors that whatever their faults, pharmaceutical companies still throw off a lot of cash. Thus, pharmaceutical and biotech stocks were back in action as first-quarter earnings started rolling in, accounting for four of the top six gainers in the TR Large-Cap 100 and the TR Small-Cap 50.

The losers’ list featured more-traditional technology companies. Proving that it’s not always fun to make games, Electronic Arts led the way down with a 25.8 percent drop through April 15 after cutting profit forecasts due to disappointing sales. EBay, which saw its stock fall 16.4 percent, is grappling with investors who can’t seem to swallow the fact that hypergrowth can’t last. (Not that all is lost: on April 20, eBay announced that first-quarter revenues climbed 36 percent over last year’s, though it did confirm that growth is slowing in the U.S. and in the company’s other established markets.) If CEO Meg Whitman wants advice on handling it all, she might want to call IBM’s Sam Palmisano, who has seen his share of disappointing stock performance. His shares fell 16.2 percent during the period.

With oil prices in the mid-$50s per barrel, you might have thought that First Calgary Petroleums, an oil and gas exploration company, chose a great time to try to cash out. But as buyers balked at the tiny company’s $2.5 billion market capitalization, short-sellers piled on. The stock fell 27.7 percent in the five weeks ending April 15. If only gasoline prices had done the same.

NOTE: JAPANESE SEMICONDUCTOR EQUIPMENT MAKER IBIDEN HAS REPLACED VARCO INTERNATIONAL IN THE TR SMALL-CAP 50 AS A RESULT OF VARCO’S MERGER WITH NATIONAL OILWELL. SOURCES: STANDARD AND POOR’S CUSTOM INDEX SERVICES, TECHNOLOGY REVIEW, YAHOO FINANCE

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