Investment Shastra

Are Low P/E stocks always great bargains?

We’re sure most of us would answer the above question with an emphatic ‘Yes’. And you may not be completely wrong! In fact, there is ample evidence proving that low P/E stocks have given higher returns as compared to high P/E stocks over the long term. The P/E Ratio has been an all time favorite valuation metric for investors due to its simplicity. It applies the simple logic that a stock trading at a lower P/E than its peers could be mispriced and therefore has potential value.

But is this always true? Let’s look at an example. Given below is a table of BPL Ltd’s stock price and P/E for the past ten years.

As we can see from the above table, BPL Ltd. was trading at PE’s of 5.89, 2.62, 4.89 in the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 respectively. Seems like an undervalued stock, doesn’t it? However, you could have been easily fooled by this low PE story! The reason for the low PE was a fall in the price triggered by the decline in earnings of the company for three years i.e. 2000 to 2003. This was proved by the fact that post 2003, the company incurred losses for most part of the remaining seven years! Thus the low PE is sometimes justified because of poor performance. But suppose you had bought the stock considering it to be a cheap stock. (Hopefully you haven’t!) What would be your returns as of 2010? Though the PE went from 5.89 to a mind boggling 540 over a period of ten years, you would still be making losses! An analysis of the financial statements would have revealed the declining trend of profits at BPL Ltd.

So let’s look at some of the reasons why stocks can trade at low PE’s.

Reasons for a low PE

1. Fluctuation of Earnings:

The problem arises if the profits fluctuate considerably due to one-time items, like sale of assets or jump in product prices. Sugar companies for e.g saw a great increase in earnings in 2009 on the back of spurt in sugar prices, which resulted in a lower PE.

Another point that we should analyse is the accounts receivable as this will give us more clarity on the quality of earnings and the actual profits realized by the company in the particular year.

Sometimes, the firm may also face short term problems like fall in demand, etc. This leads to lower prices and consequently low P/E ratio for the company. In such a case it is important to understand whether the problem is temporary and if the company can overcome it.

2. Low Growth Stock:

A stock may also trade at a low P/E if it has low growth opportunities in its current business. These may be companies that have had robust earnings in the past but have little or no growth prospects in the future. Market tends to price these stocks at lower PE than stocks with higher growth opportunities. For instance a company in the textile sector making only spindles, will have little growth prospects unless it diversifies or changes its product line. And this lack of growth will result in lower P/E.

3. Cyclicality factor:

Cyclical sector stocks go through alternate periods of boom and depression, depending on the demand prospects. As a result of increased earnings during boom periods, these stocks might appear to be available at low PE whereas during periods of recession, they will appear to be expensive due to depressed earnings. Sectors like Cement and Auto are good examples of this phenomenon. An analysis of the sector trends and the median PE is important before we invest in such companies.

4. Industry Impact:

The industry to which the company belongs to, also plays a significant role in determining the stock’s PE. For instance, stocks in IT sector are available at higher PE’s as it is considered a growth sector. And there are stocks belonging to the steel sector that always trade at an average PE of 6. While we may tend to think that these stocks are available at a low PE, the truth is that such stocks may have had a history of trading at such low PE’s. Like in the case of Uttam Galva Steel which has always traded in the PE range of 3 to 6!

Thus, low PE stocks are NOT necessarily great bargains!

The first step should always be to check whether the company is fundamentally strong and has performed well in its 6 key parameters over the past.

But what if the stock we have found has a great financial track record and none of the above reasons for a low PE? Eureka!! We may be on to a hidden gem. But we need to analyse the PE further. Here are a couple of steps which will help you to make the most of PE – our favourite valuation metric.

1. Compare a company’s PE against its peers:

It makes more sense to compare a company’s P/E against its peers because P/E ratios vary significantly across sectors.

2. Look at the Industry PE figure:

Industries can be command high or low PE depending on the growth prospects. So, it can help to look at what is the PE for the entire industry as a whole. While calculating this, It is better to calculate the median P/E for the industry instead of an average P/E. The average P/E gets affected by extremely high or low values whereas the median PE does not and hence it gives a better picture.

3. Find a rational PE based on earnings growth of a company:

Another way is to assign the company a rational PE, based on all the above factors and our analysis of the company’s growth prospects. The rational P/E should also consider the effects of inflation. P/E ratios tend to contract during periods of high inflation and expand in periods of low inflation.

Moneyworks4me’s price calculator incorporates such a rational P/E while calculating the stock’s MRP. At the same time it also allows you to include your own P/E to arrive at a stock’s MRP.

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