Home/ Companies / News/  Pfizer CEO joins host of executives at Covid-19 vaccine makers in big stock sale

The timing this week of Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Albert Bourla’s sale of about $5.6 million in company shares—on the same day it announced positive results from its Covid-19 vaccine—is drawing scrutiny from some investors.

Mr. Bourla sold about 60% of his personal Pfizer holdings Monday, joining some top executives at other drugmakers that are in pursuit of Covid-19 vaccines, including Moderna Inc. and Novavax Inc., who have sold large chunks of stock after promising news about their own coronavirus shots, as well as at other times. But some investors say the stock sales, though eye-catching, aren’t necessarily a concern.

On Monday, Pfizer and partner BioNTech said their Covid-19 vaccine showed in an early analysis to be more than 90% effective at preventing infections of the disease. The company is waiting on safety data, but could file for emergency authorization with regulators as early as later this month.

The news vaulted Pfizer and BioNTech to the front of the global race for a safe and effective vaccine and caused Pfizer’s share price to spike almost 15% to $41.99, its highest in more than a year. Global markets surged too, latching onto hopes the world may be a step closer to returning to normal.

Mr. Bourla sold more than 132,000 directly-owned shares at $41.94 per share, equal to more than 60% of his personal stockholding of Pfizer, according to a regulatory filing. He still owns 78,273 direct shares and 3,539 indirectly. On Wednesday, the shares closed at $38.52.

Mr. Bourla authorized the sale in February and renewed the authorization in August with identical price and volume terms, a Pfizer spokeswoman said.

The sale was part of Mr. Bourla’s personal financial planning and relied on what’s known as a 10b5-1 plan, which regulators allow for company insiders of exchange-listed corporations to trade a predetermined number of shares at a predetermined time, according to Pfizer. The spokeswoman said that Mr. Bourla owns “a substantial amount of Pfizer stock under our qualified and nonqualified savings plans" valued at about nine times his $1.65 million salary after the sale this week.

Several other Pfizer executives also sold shares, filings show.

Plans such as the one Mr. Bourla used are usually designed to trigger automatic stock trades and are intended to be set up far enough in advance that an executive wouldn’t have material inside information when the plan was created, said Marc Fagel, a former SEC regional director.

Some academics said that while the vaccine-maker stock sales may be legal and predetermined, they risk further straining large parts of the public already hesitant about taking Covid-19 vaccines amid concerns their development is being rushed.

While Mr. Bourla’s sale isn’t cause for alarm, it holds “potential for eroding trust," said Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who studies trust in business. “It’s still a bad look and it’s a substantial sale, and we already have people who are trying to figure out how to instill confidence in a vaccine," he said.

At Moderna and Novavax, which are also developing Covid-19 vaccines, executives have also sold off large chunks of stock, mostly preplanned, after positive news releases. Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO, has noted that he retains about 99% of his shares owned at the beginning of the year.

A Moderna spokesman cited language in the company’s regulatory filings that executives selling shares as part of preplanned sale programs “were not in possession of material, nonpublic information, at the time those programs were established."

A Novavax spokeswoman said its executives may sell stock for reasons that include “diversification, to pay college tuitions, to purchase their home," continue to hold shares and that they have sold “a fraction of their overall holdings" in the company.

Some investors say such selling could indicate the executives are privately concerned about their companies’ future, or even the efficacy of their vaccines, and want to lock in profit while they can. But corporate executives feel financial pressures, like anyone else, and may have reasons to sell that bear no reflection on the companies they run. Investors tend to scrutinize buying by executives more than they do selling, though selling at unusual times or in huge amounts can spark concern.

“For most of the executives and senior scientists in these positions, 98% of their net worth is in shares they have in their employer and by selling some stock they can pay down their mortgage, put aside money for college education of their children, get a bit of financial diversity, etc." says Jeffrey Jay, who runs investment firm Great Point Partners LLC.

Some investors noted that Pfizer’s size means its vaccine, even if effective in curbing the pandemic, may not lead to a huge impact on the company’s shares.

"Insider selling by vaccine makers should serve as a warning because it suggests insiders may fear their stocks will decline after hype gives way to the logistics challenges of distributing vaccines," says Michael Krensavage who runs hedge fund Krensavage Asset Management LLC.. He’s betting against shares of Moderna and Novavax but doesn’t have a Pfizer position.

Mr. Bourla’s sale might have less to do with the company’s vaccine and simply more to do with the stock’s share price, which is down nearly 2% this year, says Louise Chen of Cantor Fitzgerald LP.

“I don’t think it’s a testament to his confidence in the vaccine but it may be testament to how he feels about how his shares will trade," Ms. Chen says.

Mr. Bourla began leading Pfizer at the start of last year after working in a variety of business roles in his 25 years at the company. A veterinarian from Greece, Mr. Bourla was hired by Pfizer while doing animal-health research, and he joined the board in 2018.

Under Mr. Bourla, Pfizer has focused on growing largely through its internal pipeline rather than via acquisition and working to shed older products. It combined its consumer health-care division into one similar to GlaxoSmithKline PLC for a joint-venture. And late last month, regulators cleared the merger between Pfizer’s businesses that sell off-patent medicines with Mylan NV.

In March, the company began working with BioNTech SE on a Covid-19 vaccine, building off a partnership that began in 2018 for work on a flu shot.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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