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Teva Is Drowning in Debt and Firing Thousands of Employees. Now Warren Buffett Is Interested

February 15, 2018, 11:34 AM UTC

Warren Buffett stoked hopes of a transformation in one of the biggest generic drugmakers as his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. became a top shareholder weeks after pledging to take aim at spiraling U.S. health costs.

Shares of the drugmaker, Israel’s ailing Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., surged the most in two months after Berkshire disclosed in a filing it had bought about $350 million worth of shares.

Teva is working on a turnaround after getting bruised by the recent slump in U.S. generics prices. It supplies one in six copycat medicines used by Americans, and its ability to develop cheaper copies of even complex treatments could play a role in an ambitious effort to lower healthcare costs announced last month by Berkshire, Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Teva shares surged as much as 8.9% in Tel Aviv trading. With about 1.9% of Teva’s U.S.-traded shares, Berkshire became the tenth-biggest shareholder in the world’s largest manufacturer of generic medicines.

Teva’s Repair

Buffett is buying into Teva at the early stages of its own repair. The Israeli drugmaker took on a mountain of loans in 2016 to bulk up its copycat medicines business as profit margins declined in the U.S., the world’s most lucrative market for pharmaceutical companies. Worse, rival drugmakers began selling cheaper copies of Copaxone, a blockbuster multiple sclerosis injection, dragging profits of Teva’s highest grossing product.

The stock lost nearly half its value in 2016 and the following year again.

Teva’s new Chief Executive Officer Kare Schultz laid out a vast cost-cutting plan in December, halting dividend payments and eliminating 25% of the global workforce. He has repeatedly stated that his biggest priority is to curb the company’s $31.4 billion debt pile.

Berkshire hasn’t revealed the reasons why it bought Teva shares. But the fact that it staked money supports the view of those who say that Teva “is taking the right steps to execute on a successful turnaround,” Citigroup Inc. analyst Liav Abraham wrote in an emailed note to clients.