News & Analysis

Look before you leap …FIVE reasons why a low PE Ratio may be a reason NOT to jump in

25 August 2023 By Mike Smith


What is a PE Ratio, and Why is It of Interest to Investors?

The Price-to-Earnings (P/E) ratio is a metric that measures a company’s current share price relative to its earnings per share (EPS). It’s a relatively simple calculation, worked out by dividing the current share price by the Earnings per Share.

Traditionally, it has been used as a potential method as part of fundamental analysis to determine the valuation of a stock at its current price, and by comparing it against other stocks, one can make a judgment as to whether a stock is overvalued or undervalued relative to its earnings.

In simple terms, a high P/E ratio might indicate that the stock is overvalued and may be worth avoiding, while a low P/E ratio could suggest undervaluation and hence an opportunity to invest and benefit as the price moves up to a fair value.

We have discussed P/E ratios and the influences of this fundamental analysis measure in some detail in another article, “PE Ratios: What They Tell You (and What They Don’t),” which you can find HERE.

However, although this is true to some degree, it is far from the whole story. It is equally true that a low P/E ratio may have causative factors that mean you should avoid the stock rather than jumping in expecting a return to former glory.

So, in this article, we take a deeper dive into some low P/E ratio causes that may be “red flags” in your investment decision-making. For each, we will define what the concern may be that merits further investigation and provide examples to assist in highlighting how this may happen. So, in essence, you will have a checklist to use when considering stocks with low P/E ratios as investments.

  1. Declining Industry or Sector:A low P/E may be indicative of an actual or potential gradual reduction in overall demand and growth prospects within a particular industry or sector. Many reasons for this could include changes in policy, environmental concerns, technology advances, customer preferences, and demographics.

    Although this decline may be permanent in some cases, there may also be temporary declines due to longer-term supply chain issues or healthcare reasons (the recent COVID pandemic being a prime example where overnight the travel industry was hit hard).

    The difficulty with the more temporary causes is not only the investor’s ability to judge the potential duration of the causative factor but also the subsequent time required for recovery after the event has passed.

    The more permanent declines may be currently in progress or likely to happen in the future. With current declines, an obvious example would be the move from traditional print media to digital news platforms. The ability, or even the possibility, of a company to adapt is part of the equation to determine the degree of decline. Assessing the potential for decline poses the challenge of timing, as it is commonly unknown when there will be a substantial impact. An example of this may be the coal industry’s decline due to renewable energy adoption.

  2. Poor Quality Earnings: Earnings are clearly part of the P/E ratio calculation. However, this warrants further exploration, as earnings may be temporarily inflated, giving a misrepresentation of the company’s true health.

    Even a company with an already low P/E that appears to have growth based on the latest earnings, and may look attractive, is worth additional checks. One-time events, accounting changes, or other non-recurring factors may all contribute, at least superficially, to earnings that may be indicative of growth potential.

    For example, a company’s earnings may be inflated by a one-time sale of intellectual property or an asset. As this may be reflected more obviously in trailing rather than forward P/E, at a minimum, this should be a starting point for any assessment, but it does reinforce the need to view other broader fundamental analysis metrics.

  3. High Debt Levels: High debt levels, appearing to support a company’s ability to operate currently, may restrict future flexibility, the ability to service such debt should interest rates or consumer spending landscapes change, and ultimately jeopardize stability.

    Even in a company with a comparatively low P/E and relatively good performance currently, the level of debt should be part of your decision-making process when considering stock positions for the long term.

    Examples of such could be a real estate company highly leveraged during rising interest rate periods or a consumer discretionary retail chain carrying excessive debt in an economic downturn.

  4. Lack of Growth Potential: There may be a situation where a low P/E reflects a decrease in price due to the market’s perception of limited opportunities for a company to expand its market share, innovate, or increase revenue due to various internal and external factors.

    The level of competition and innovation within a specific sector is a key potential factor in this, with a comparison to industry peers helping the investor to identify discrepancies or unique attributes that may suggest that a low P/E ratio is merited and unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.

    Examples of this may include a mature telecom company with limited growth in a saturated market or a software company hindered by strong competition and a lack of innovation.

  5. Poor Management or Governance: Poor management can manifest in several ways, with varying degrees of potential damage to the company going forward, resulting in a company’s low P/E ratio reflecting trouble rather than value.

    Weak leadership or governance may lead to inefficiency, apparent indecision, or strategic mistakes. This can include decisions leading to legal or regulatory issues that may threaten the company’s well-being or result in substantial financial penalties. Warning signs could include: 
  • A company with frequent CEO changes, indicating instability.
  • A corporation’s history of failed acquisitions, showing poor decision-making.
  • A car manufacturer recalling models due to dangerous design faults.
  • A pharmaceutical company involved in lawsuits over questionable marketing.

Conclusion: Understanding the warning signs when considering a stock with a low P/E ratio involves an in-depth analysis of various aspects, including earnings quality, financial leverage, growth prospects, product relevance, leadership quality, among many others not included in this article. We have focused on what we consider to be the top 5, and we trust this proves to be a useful starting point. Being adept in interpreting these signs is a vital skill that can help traders mitigate risks and make more informed decisions.

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Disclaimer: Articles are from GO Markets analysts and contributors and are based on their independent analysis or personal experiences. Views, opinions or trading styles expressed are their own, and should not be taken as either representative of or shared by GO Markets. Advice, if any, is of a ‘general’ nature and not based on your personal objectives, financial situation or needs. Consider how appropriate the advice, if any, is to your objectives, financial situation and needs, before acting on the advice. If the advice relates to acquiring a particular financial product, you should obtain and consider the Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) and Financial Services Guide (FSG) for that product before making any decisions.