Negative P/E Ratio

Price-Earnings Ratio (P/E Ratio)

Before taking the discussion to Negative P/E Ratio, let’s understand the concept of Price-Earnings Ratio or P/E ratio. It expresses the relationship between the price per share and the amount of earnings attributable to a single share. In other words, the P/E ratio tells us how much an investor in common stock pays per dollar of earnings. For the purpose of understanding sometimes the P/E ratio is expressed in years. Logically it means that P/E ratio shows the number of years it will take for a particular company to earn its price per equity share. To simply understand P/E ratio, let us start with an example.

P / E Ratio Example

Example 1 – Suppose XYZ Company’s share price in the open market is $100 & last year’s earnings were $10 per share

So P/E ratio = Price per Equity Share / Earnings per Share

Therefore P/E ratio of XYZ Company =$100 / $10 = 10

This simply means that share of XYZ Company is selling for 10 times its earnings. In other words, it will take 10 years for XYZ Company to earn its equity share price. This gives us an idea of what the market is willing to pay for a company’s earnings.

It is very easy to calculate P/E ratio, the more complicated part is its interpretation. This ratio is unique in the sense that either a high or a low P/E ratio can be positive as well as negative. There can be many possibilities, some as follows:

  • A low P/E ratio of say 6 can be good because it means the stock is selling for “cheap”, & is good value for investors.
  • A low P/E ratio can also be bad because-“Why is the equity share selling so cheap?”
  • A high P/E ratio of say 20 can be good because-“Why people are willing to buy equity share of this company at such expensive rates?”
  • A high P/E ratio can be bad because it’s “expensive” and not good value for investors.

Generally, P/E ratio of any company is positive, but in some unusual cases, the P/E ratio is negative. In today’s discussion, we will talk about these unusual negative P/E ratios.

Negative P/E Ratio

If we focus on the formula of P/E ratio, we can conclude mathematically that the P/E ratio can be negative either because the price per share is negative (i.e. numerator) or earnings per share are negative (i.e. denominator). As we know the price per share can never be negative, so we can conclude that P/E ratio can be negative only when a company’s earnings per share is negative.

Negative P-E Ratio

Negative P/E Ratio Interpretation & Analysis

As discussed, a negative P/E ratio is a result of negative Earnings per share. A negative P/E ratio means the company is losing money i.e. company is reporting losses. For the purpose of understanding, suppose a company has a P/E ratio of (-5), this means that if the company consistently keeps reporting losses at this rate, it will take 5 years for the company to lose its floating equity capital.

Negative P/E Ratio-Debunking The Myth

It is commonly believed that a negative P/E ratio is automatically a red flag that a company is in financial trouble or may not be on the path of growth. This is not necessarily true, a company can have a negative P/E ratio and still be doing very well. There can be various reasons for P/E ratio to be negative, some of them as follows:

  • A company can have negative P/E ratios because of change in its accounting policy
  • Negative P/E ratio may be a one-off thing. This may be due to incidents such as company writing off higher depreciation or amortization for a particular year or a market trend wherein an entire industry may generate negative P/E ratio due to cyclical causes.

Such occurrences are very normal in a company’s lifecycle and a negative P/E ratio due to these may not be a cause for concern. In such scenario, the company may report a negative P/E ratio and still be on the path of growth.

An investor or an analyst should be concerned about negative P/E ratio when a company consistently reports negative P/E ratio for longer periods of time for say 5 years in a row. This indicates that the company is not in good financial health.

How To Determine If the Negative P/E Ratio is a Red Flag?

There are many methods to determine if a negative P/E ratio of a particular company is a negative sign. Some of the methods are as follows:

  • COMPARE HISTORICAL PRICE-EARNINGS RATIO OF THE COMPANY

Say a company was established in 1990, and from 1990 to 2015 the company has consistently reported a P/E ratio between 8 and 10, now from 2015 to 2018 the company has been reporting negative P/E ratio. Does that mean the company is having a downfall? To answer this question we need to look closer, we need to determine the reason for this negative P/E ratio. We may find that this may be due to structural management changes within the company or it’s aggressive marketing strategy. In India, Flipkart is a classic example of a high-valued company with consistently negative P/E Ratio. This is because Flipkart is pouring cash to grow market share.

  • COMPARE THE PRICE-EARNINGS RATIO OF THE COMPANY WITH OTHER COMPANIES IN THE SAME SECTOR

A method to determine if a company’s negative P/E ratio points to it’s gloomy future, is to compare the company’s P/E ratio with that of it’s competitors. Suppose Company A is a beverage manufacturer and it reported a P/E ratio of (-2) for the financial year 2017-18. For the same period, Coca-Cola Company reported P/E ratio of 23.30 & Pepsico Inc’s reported 32.72. Now, this is a big concern while analyzing Company A, and analysts should dive deeper to find the cause of this abnormality.

Bottomline

It is always easy to come to a negative conclusion when we see negative P/E ratio. What is important to understand is that ratios must not be taken as answers but must be used as questions. An analyst should try to find answers to the questions that are indicated by irregularities in the ratios. Furthermore, it is not a wise decision to rely on only one ratio to conclude financial health of any company. Each financial ratio only gives one side of the story. To form a complete picture of a potential investment, one needs to consider other metrics as well. While Price-Earnings Ratio can be a solid indicator of value if seen in isolation it has a potential to mislead or misinform.

Reference:

  • The essential P/E by Keith Anderson, published in 2012
Last updated on : April 21st, 2018

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