Theoretically, a stock's P/E tells us how much investors are willing to pay per dollar of earnings. For this reason it's also called the "multiple" of a stock. In other words, a P/E ratio of 20 suggests that investors in the stock are willing to pay $20 for every $1 of earnings that the company generates. However, this is a far too simplistic way of viewing the P/E because it fails to take into account the company's growth prospects.
Growth of Earnings
Although the EPS figure in the P/E is usually based on earnings from the last four quarters, the P/E is more than a measure of a company's past performance. It also takes into account market expectations for a company's growth. Remember, stock prices reflect what investors think a company will be worth. Future growth is already accounted for in the stock price. As a result, a better way of interpreting the P/E ratio is as a reflection of the market's optimism concerning a company's growth prospects.
If a company has a P/E higher than the market or industry average, this means that the market is expecting big things over the next few months or years. A company with a high P/E ratio will eventually have to live up to the high rating by substantially increasing its earnings, or the stock price will need to drop.
A good example is Microsoft. Several years ago, when it was growing by leaps and bounds, and its P/E ratio was over 100. Today, Microsoft is one of the largest companies in the world, so its revenues and earnings can't maintain the same growth as before. As a result, its P/E had dropped to 43 by June 2002. This reduction in the P/E ratio is a common occurrence as high-growth startups solidify their reputations and turn into blue chips.
Cheap or Expensive?
The P/E ratio is a much better indicator of the value of a stock than the market price alone. For example, all things being equal, a $10 stock with a P/E of 75 is much more "expensive" than a $100 stock with a P/E of 20. That being said, there are limits to this form of analysis - you can't just compare the P/Es of two different companies to determine which is a better value.
It's difficult to determine whether a particular P/E is high or low without taking into account two main factors:
1. Company growth rates - How fast has the company been growing in the past, and are these rates expected to increase, or at least continue, in the future? Something isn't right if a company has only grown at 5% in the past and still has a stratospheric P/E. If projected growth rates don't justify the P/E, then a stock might be overpriced. In this situation, all you have to do is calculate the P/E using projected EPS.
2. Industry - It is only useful to compare companies if they are in the same industry. For example, utilities typically have low multiples because they are low growth, stable industries. In contrast, the technology industry is characterized by phenomenal growth rates and constant change. Comparing a tech company to a utility is useless. You should only compare high-growth companies to others in the same industry, or to the industry average. You can find P/E ratios by industry on Yahoo! Finance.
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