P/E ratio, or price-to-earnings ratio, is a quick way to see if a stock is undervalued or overvalued. And so generally speaking, the lower the P/E ratio is, the better it is for both the business and potential investors. The metric is the stock price of a company divided by its earnings per share. You shouldn’t compare P/E ratios of different kinds of companies, like a tech company and a consumer staple company. In other words, the metric is only useful when comparing apples to apples. If you want help with using P/E ratios to invest your money, consider working with a financial advisor.
P/E Ratio: Why It’s Important
You don’t have to calculate each company’s P/E ratio yourself. After all, you can just Google it. But in case you’re curious, the ratio is the share price divided by earnings per share. The resulting number tells you how much you are paying per dollar that the company earns. Here’s the formula:
Share Price ÷ Earnings Per Share = P/E Ratio
For example, a ratio of 15 would mean that investors are willing to pay $15 for every dollar of company earnings. This is why the P/E ratio is sometimes referred to as the “earnings multiple” or just “multiple.”
You generally use the P/E ratio by comparing it to other P/E ratios of companies in the same industry or to past P/E ratios of the same company. If you are comparing same-sector companies, the one with the lower P/E may be undervalued. Or if you’re looking at past data for one company, a higher number could mean it’s no longer a bargain.
How to Tell If a P/E Ratio Is Good or Bad
Ultimately, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what a good P/E ratio is. But in general, many value investors consider a lower P/E ratio better. Again, these ratios are often used in a comparative sense, so what’s good or bad is often dependent on what you’re comparing it against.
To give you some sense of what average for the market is, though, many value investors would refer to 20 to 25 as the average P/E ratio range. And again, like golf, the lower the P/E ratio a company has, the better an investment the metric is saying it is.
However, the above assumes a value mindset when looking at the market. If you instead prefer to invest in larger, less volatile company stocks, you may be willing to pay up for a pricier investment with a higher P/E ratio.
The Drawbacks of Using P/E Ratio to Evaluate Investments
The P/E ratio seems like a straightforward calculation, but what you use for earnings can be tricky. For one thing, earnings are reported by each company, and accounting practices are not the same across the board. There’s also the possibility that a company is inflating earnings by devaluing or hiding costs.
That’s partly why it’s a good idea to take the P/E ratio with a grain of salt. Another reason: a company with a high ratio could have high growth prospects. Its ratio is high because it is spending a lot of money to grow its business. So it could still be a good buy.
In other words, you shouldn’t just zero in on the P/E ratio when you’re deciding whether to buy shares. There are many other metrics to consider, including earnings charts, sales figures and other fundamentals of a company. You can also look at the dividend rate if you’re going for dividend investing. Exhaustive research should lead you to more prudent investments. If you don’t have the time, consider hiring a financial advisor.
It’s a good idea for investors to understand the P/E ratio and how to use it to evaluate share prices. But it’s only one of many available metrics. It shouldn’t be used alone, and it shouldn’t be used to compare companies that are in different businesses. That said, it is a handy way of seeing if a stock is a bargain or not.
Tips to Become a Better Investor
- Financial advisors often have years of experience managing investments, making them great partners for anyone looking to improve their portfolio. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- Exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, can be a great way to quickly flesh out your existing portfolio. Like mutual funds, ETFs are baskets of stocks that carry less overall risk than an individual company’s stock does. But unlike mutual funds, you can trade ETFs very easily, buying or selling them very quickly.
- If you’re unsure about how much money an investment could make, SmartAsset’s free investment calculator could help you get an estimate.
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