Bristol-Myers Squibb has posted a healthy set of results for the fourth quarter on the back of strong sales growth for the bloodthinner Plavix and antipsychotic Abilify.

Net income came in at $1.24 billion, compared with a like,year-earlier loss of $89 million, boosted by an after-tax gain of $582 million, much of which came from proceeds of B-MS’ sale of its stake in ImClone Systems to Eli Lilly. Group sales increased 4% to $5.25 billion, while pharmaceutical turnover was also up 4% to $4.52 billion.

Growth was driven by Plavix (clopidogrel), up 7% to $1.47 billion. while Abilify (aripiprazole) shot up 31% to $606 million. As for the firm's HIV drugs, sales of the Sustiva (efavirenz) franchise rose 15% to $300 million, though Reyataz (atazanavir) sales were down 1% to $329 million. The cancer agent Erbitux (cetuximab), which B-MS tried to get full control of in its failed bid to buy ImClone, slipped 2% to $182 million.

Sales of the cholesterol lowerer Pravachol (pravastatin) collapsed 70% to $27 million as generic competition took its toll but B-MS’ newer drugs softened the blow. Sprycel (dasatanib) for leukaemia rose 54% to $86 million, while Orencia (abatacept) for rheumatoid arthritis increased 72% to $129 million. Revenues from Baraclude (entecavir) for hepatitis B climbed 55% to $153 million.

Chief executive James Cornelius said that in the last year, B-MS has “become leaner and more agile” and the fourth-quarter results “continued to be strong, capping off an outstanding year”. He also noted that the company ended the year with $8 billion in the bank and will “continue to actively seek and evaluate opportunities” for acquisitions and partnering deals.

However, as the repercussions of the Pfizer/Wyeth link-up take effect on the industry, some observers believe that B-MS could find itself a target. Goldman Sachs analyst Jami Rubin issued a research note saying that the company “continues to be active in mergers and acquisitions, enhancing its strategic attractiveness to an acquirer or as a break-up candidate," He added that “the majority of the company's cash is also generated in the United States, increasing both strategic value and flexibility," the analyst added.

Tim Anderson at Sanford Bernstein issued a note along the same lines, saying that “there is the possibility the company could be acquired at some point, contingent on its ability to bridge better its patent cliff that starts in 2012”. He went on to note that over the next four years, B-MS’ earnings base is likely to grow substantially, “leaving it in comparatively decent shape as these products then begin to disappear”.

For 2009, B-MS forecast earnings per share of $1.85-$2.00, excluding items, in line with consensus estimates. Revenue growth should be in the low-single digits due to the negative impact of foreign exchange rates.