A Bear and a Bull Debate the Move in Health Care After Merck's Covid Pill Breakthrough

Ralph Orlowski | Reuters

Health-care stocks ended last week divided.

Merck, which led the group, rallied more than 8% on Friday after promising results from its antiviral Covid pill with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. Vaccine makers such as Moderna and Novavax ended the day sharply lower.

Market analysts are divided, too.

Craig Johnson, chief market technician at Piper Sandler, is avoiding the group.

"We're underweight the sector," Johnson told CNBC's "Trading Nation" on Friday. "We're just seeing absolute price moves up but poor relative performance against the rest of the market. In fact, I find areas inside like the equipment makers more constructive than either the pharma names or the biotech."

The XLV health care ETF, which holds stocks such as Johnson & Johnson and UnitedHealth, has risen 12% this year. The S&P 500 is up 16%.

"We couldn't be more opposite," Michael Bapis, managing director of Vios Advisors at Rockefeller Capital, said during the same interview.

He sees numerous tail winds that should propel health-care stocks higher over the long haul.

"Start with demographics," he said. "Our population is aging faster than it ever has aged, and the longevity of life has become more expanded than it's ever been, which means people are more dependent on the pharmaceutical space."

The sector also looks cheap relative to the market, he said. The XLV ETF, for example, trades at 17 times forward earnings – the S&P 500 trades with a 20 times forward multiple.

"With interest rates low, with the demographics that we have and with people being so dependent on the pharmaceutical space, we just see that there's much more upside than not and especially coming off [being] the laggard," he said.


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