Recently, I noticed a stock on my watch list that hasn't returned to its pre-financial-crisis level: Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly (LLY). Here's my analysis.

For a mature dividend aristocrat such as LLY, the dividend discount model is usually a good start in valuing the stock.

LLY has raised its dividend for over 25 years. Over the last 10 years, LLY has raised its dividend a compound 7.86%. Year-over-year, the minimum raise has been 4%, the maximum 13% and the average raise was close to 8%.

Meanwhile, earnings per share (EPS) growth has only compounded by 1.65%. So the growth in dividend is probably not sustainable without further improvements to the bottom line, such as cost cutting or acquisitions.

If we assume a 1% growth in dividends (to match the growth in EPS) in perpetuity, and tag it with a 9% discount (my minimum expected return from solid stocks), the dividend growth model yields a price of $25.

LLY currently trades at around $34, has a forward P/E of 7.8 due to analysts-expected EPS of about $4.25 for 2009.

LLY's 10-year average EPS is only $2.00, though. The growth expected this year and next is attributed to a strong drug demand, the acquisition of ImClone and cost cutting. The company's own EPS guidance for 2009 suggests EPS between $4.20 and 4.30. It's unclear how sustainable this new EPS level is.

Historically, LLY P/E ratio has been quite high: the average low P/E was around 22 while the average high P/E was 34. Counting on market euphoria to bring the P/E back to its historical lofty levels is never a good idea. My comfort range of P/E for a large and mature company such as LLY is between 10 and 15. Using LLY's average 10-year earnings of $2.00, we get a price tag of between $20 and $24.

Looking at dividend and EPS growth and checking the P/E ratio is only part of the analysis. I said earlier that it's usually a good start because mature companies such as LLY often have stable earnings, growth, debt load and share count. But a further look at the balance sheet is always helpful. Consider the trends in the graph below.



Looking at various balance sheet indicators as a percentage of sales can help spot worrisome trends. In this case, it's encouraging to see that both research and development (R&D) and accounts receivable have been moving inline with sales. Inventory had a run up in the past that warrants further investigation, but doesn't appear to be out of control. Selling, general and administrative expenses (SG&A) have been growing slightly faster than sales, which might indicate that LLY is not as efficient as it used to be 10 years ago. Nonetheless, the trend is not sky-rocketing either.

Overall, these trends are somewhat reassuring that the dividend discount model is meaningful as it shows the fundamentals are not quickly deteriorating.

Conclusion: from a purely dividend discount valuation and a check against a conservative P/E multiple and a conservative EPS estimate, my initial fair value for a share of LLY is between $20 and $25. Further investigation into drugs in the pipeline, patent expiration and integration of acquisitions is necessary to further determine earnings power and hence fair value.

Disclosures: No shares of LLY held at the time of writing.


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