J&J loses $39.8 billion in market value after report claims J&J knew about asbestos in baby powder

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Johnson & Johnson lost $39.8 billion in market value Friday, suffering its worst trading day in more than 15 years, after Reuters said the company knew for decades that its baby powder contained asbestos — an allegation the company denied.

J&J said the story was “one-sided, false and inflammatory” and an “absurd conspiracy theory,” according to a statement.

Thousands of lawsuits have accused J&J’s talc-based baby powder of containing asbestos and causing ovarian and other types of cancers. Investors have expressed some concern over the lawsuits, though J&J has successfully won a number of cases.

Friday’s report spooked the Street and drove J&J’s shares down 10.04 percent to close at $133 a share, losing about $39.8 billion of its market value. J&J now has a market capitalization of $356.7 billion. The shares recovered somewhat after tumbling as much as 11.9 percent in intraday trading.

The pummeling was the company’s worst trading day in more than 15 years — when its shares closed down 15.85 percent on July 19, 2002. Friday was the company’s fifth-worst trading day on record.

Analysts viewed the sell-off as overdone. Wells Fargo called Friday’s moves “excessive.” J.P. Morgan called them an “over-reaction.”

Wells Fargo’s Larry Biegelsen said in a note to clients that even if J&J settled all 11,700 cases for $280,000 each, the highest per-case settlement amount among the cases it has followed, the total liability would be $3.3 billion. J.P. Morgan’s Chris Schott echoed Biegelsen, saying J&J’s exposure to the legal risk probably won’t come close to the amount J&J lost in market value Friday.

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