The price-to-earnings ratio (P/E ratio) is the ratio for valuing a company that measures its current share price relative to its per-share earnings. P/E ratios are used by investors and analysts to help determine the relative value of a company’s shares in an apples-to-apples comparison.
It can also be used to compare a company against its own historical record or to compare aggregate markets against one another or over time. The ubiquitous P/E ratio is typically the first metric investors learn on their journey towards financial freedom.
One of the biggest mistakes I see new investors make is their use of the P/E ratio because the P/E ratio has some significant drawbacks that you should be aware of before we teach you the profitable and proven benefits of this indicator.
Today, lets cover 5 points the ratio will not teach us and tomorrow we will learn precisely how it can tell us which direction the markets are going shortly.
What the P/E Ratio Teaches us is vitally important so first we have to quickly learn what it does not teach us.
1. Price is not a good measure for what a company is worth
The first issue with the P/E ratio is the ‘P’ part of the formula. Typically, the ‘P’ stands for the share PRICE which corresponds to the market capitalization of the company. But there’s a problem with using only market capitalization. Market cap only represents the contribution of equity shareholders. Which means it doesn’t include any debt or cash on the balance sheet.
If you want to know the true worth of a company surely you need to include debt and cash? To do so, it’s better to use an alternative such as enterprise value which is the market cap, plus total debt, minus cash. Often, the market cap of a company will be similar to the enterprise value but sometimes it can be vastly different. GE, for example, has a market cap of over $52 billion but it’s enterprise value is more than double that at $111 billion. If you use market cap you get a lower P/E ratio than if you used the enterprise value. So by substituting market cap with enterprise value the formula immediately becomes more useful.
Just like the ‘P’ in ‘P/E’ is inadequate, the ‘E’ part of the formula is also misleading. Typically, the ‘E’ represents earnings per share which is usually reported as the trailing twelve month EPS or in other words the net profit over the last 12 months.
The problem here is that EPS or net profit contains many different components and is therefore not necessarily a good indication of the real profitability of a company. For example, net profit is reported after accounting procedures such as depreciation and amortization.
These techniques are often used to massage the books, by inflating profits and pushing out losses. On top of that, net profit may include interest and tax payments, both of which are individual to the company and not necessarily useful for observing what profit a business is actually making.
So instead of using EPS or net profit, a better option is to use EBITDA which stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation. In other words, it is the true earnings before all those components have made their mark. And so, instead of using the trusted P/E, which is market cap divided by EPS you can see it’s better to use a more comprehensive formula such as enterprise value divided by EBITDA.
Now we’ve looked at the limitations of the formula, you should understand that P/E ratios (like most financial metrics) are inherently misleading because they are lagging metrics. To put it plainly, when you plug in the earnings part of the formula you are typically using past data, typically the trailing 12 month EPS (or EBITDA).
Clearly, the problem with this is that the last 12 months of earnings are not necessarily predictive of the next 12 months. For example, consider a company that has a market cap of $1 billion and in the last twelve months reported net profit of $100 million. That would give it a P/E ratio of 10 which historically would make it cheap and an attractive buy.
But consider that the last 12 months were, in fact, a stand out year for the company based on a series of unusual economic events unlikely to occur again. And in fact, the company usually makes only $20 million a year, not $100 million. With a net profit of only $20 million, the P/E ratio would be 50 which is historically a high and unattractive multiple.
In other words, the stock is priced at 10 times last year’s earnings but 50 times next year’s earnings. The stock either needs to decline in price to bring the P/E back to a more realistic level or it needs to grow its earnings in line with last year’s stand-out numbers.
Either way, you can see that buying the stock based on last year’s earnings is a flawed strategy because it doesn’t consider future earnings or the historical earnings average.
Divide any number by a negative and you end up with another negative. And so is the problem when using the P/E ratio for any company that reports negative earnings (of which there are many!). Consider, for example, the market cap for Uber which is currently $56 billion. And consider the latest 12-month EBITDA which was -$8.2 billion. 56 divided by -8.2 results in a P/E ratio of -6.8. So if low P/E ratios are good then Uber must be outrageously cheap.
But of course, we know it isn’t because the negative P/E doesn’t tell us anything. All it tells us is this company hasn’t reported any profit in the last 12 months. In other words, the P/E ratio for any unprofitable company is meaningless, except perhaps to say that this is a stock that may not provide any return unless it can soon get itself profitable. In a similar vein, the P/E ratio has limited ability when used to compare across industries.
Low growth industries such as conglomerates or utilities typically command lower P/Es which cannot be compared to other industries such as tech stocks which often have high P/Es or negative P/Es. Essentially, the P/E ratio is limited in its ability whenever the main consideration is growth or profitability.
The cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) ratio of a stock market is one of the standard metrics used to evaluate whether a market is overvalued, undervalued, or fairly-valued.
This metric was developed by Robert Shiller and popularized during the Dotcom Bubble when he proved (correctly) that equities were highly overvalued. For that reason, it’s also casually referred to as the “Shiller PE”, meaning the Shiller variant of the typical price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of stock.
It’s most commonly applied to the S&P 500, but can be and is applied to any stock index. The main benefit is that it is one of several broad valuation metrics that can help you determine how much of your portfolio should reasonably be invested into equities based on the current relationship between the price you pay for them and the value you get in return in the form of earnings.
Robert Shiller demonstrated using 130 years of backtested data that the returns of the S&P 500 over the next 20 years are strongly inversely correlated with the CAPE ratio at any given time.
In other words, whenever the CAPE ratio of the market is high, it means stocks are overvalued, and returns over the next 20 years will likely be poor. In contrast, whenever the ratio is low, it means the stocks are undervalued, and returns over the next 20 years will likely be good.
Are we under, over, of fairly valued in May 2020?
In tomorrows post we will analyze precisely where we are valued as a market and how InterAnalyst can help you maximize your portfolio growth now.