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Table of Contents

Can a Stock Lose All Its Value?

How does this affect long and short positions?

stock market crash sell-off - trading screen in red
bunhill / Getty Images

Can a stock lose its value?

The answer to this question, in theory at least, is a pretty straightforward: Yes.

Stocks are able to lose all their value in the market, and have done so before, especially in the case of a bankruptcy. Even if a company does go bankrupt, in reality shareholders often do receive some residual payment back, but this is usually just pennies on the dollar. This fact should not scare you off from investing in stocks, or investing in general. However, we would be lying if we claimed that stocks carry no risk (although some, of course, carry more than others). Read on to see how a stock's price can get wrecked and approach zero.

Key Takeaways

  • Supply and demand determine the value of a stock in the market, with higher demand driving the price higher in turn.
  • Lower demand causes a stock to lose some value—and plummeting demand could cause it to lose all value.
  • Since a stock's price is meant to reflect its future profitability and growth, companies that go bankrupt can become effectively worthless.
  • This is often a calamity to those who are holding long positions and hoping a stock price will rise.
  • A massive drop in stock value can, however, be a boon to investors who are short the stock.

Determining Stock Price and Bankruptcy

To help you understand why a stock can lose all its value, we should review how the stock price is determined. Specifically, the value of a stock is determined by the basic relationship between supply and demand. If a lot of people want a stock (demand is high), then the price will rise. If a lot of people don't want a stock (demand is low), then the price will fall.

If a stock's demand sinks dramatically, it will lose much (if not all) of its value. The main factor determining the demand for a stock is the quality of the company itself. If the company is fundamentally strong, that is, if it is generating positive income, its stock is less likely to lose value.

So, although stocks carry some risk, it would not be accurate to say that a loss in a stock's value is completely arbitrary. There are other factors that drive supply and demand for companies. These have a lot to do with a company's fundamentals and growth outlook. As long as these are favorable and positive, a stock's price tends to rise. If, however, a company can no longer operate profitably, there is a chance that it will be forced out of business and declare bankruptcy.

When a company declares bankruptcy, it doesn't automatically mean that is absolutely worthless. The company can still hold assets that could be sold, brand recognition, and skilled employees. As a result, companies will often negotiate with their creditors to renegotiate their debts and restructure the company to emerge from bankruptcy. If the company is unable to achieve this, it may be forced to sell off its assets in a fire sale to repay creditors (such as banks, bondholders, and preferred stockholders). Only once these parties have been repaid can common stockholders receive any compensation based on what's left. If there is nothing left, the stock is worth zero.

Companies that are fundamentally strong are less likely to completely lose value than those that are on shakier legs, to begin with.

Impact on Long and Short Positions

The effects of a stock losing all its value will be different for a long position than for a short position. Someone holding a long position (owns the stock) is, of course, hoping the investment will appreciate. A drop in price to zero means the investor loses his or her entire investment: a return of -100%.

Conversely, a complete loss in a stock's value is the best possible scenario for an investor holding a short position in the stock. Because the stock is worthless, the investor holding a short position does not have to buy back the shares and return them to the lender (usually a broker), which means the short position gains a 100% return. Bear in mind that if you are uncertain about whether a stock can lose all its value, it is probably not advisable to engage in the advanced practice of short selling securities. Short selling is a speculative strategy and the downside risk of a short position is much greater than that of a long position.

To summarize, yes, a stock can lose its entire value. However, depending on the investor's position, the drop to worthlessness can be either good (short positions) or bad (long positions).

Even if a company goes bankrupt, common shareholders will often receive some sort of residual compensation, but only cents on the dollar. If a company files Chapter 11 bankruptcy, for example, a judge may restructure the firm, allowing it to continue operations after repaying creditors. If the company declares Chapter 7, the company is dead, and so are your shares.


Real-World Example of a Stock Losing All Its Value

Sometimes a company will be forced into bankruptcy and its stock fall to zero as the result of an accounting scandal or fraud. Take the famous case of Enron, a large and influential energy and trading company in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, the company was riding high and its stock was seeing all-time highs.

What people didn't know yet, however, was that Enron was using accounting tricks to hide massive losses and holdings of toxic assets. By 2001, analysts and investors began to question Enron's mark-to-market accounting practices and became suspicious of the company's earnings. In 2001, the company started to report massive quarterly losses, which quickly spiraled out of control.

At Enron’s peak, its shares were worth $90.75 in 2000; just prior to declaring bankruptcy on Dec. 2, 2001, they were trading at just $0.26.

Enron Stock Price Chart
Enron Stock Price Chart.

Can a Stock Go Negative?

Technically, a company that has more debts and other liabilities than assets is worth a negative amount. Shares of its stock, however, would only fall to zero and would not turn negative.

What Happens If a Stock Price Goes to Zero?

If a stock's price falls all the way to zero, shareholders end up with worthless holdings. Once a stock falls below a certain threshold, stock exchanges will delist those shares. They may continue to trade over-the-counter (OTC), and even bankrupt companies may see their shares trade for above zero for some time as speculators make wild bets on a miracle recovery.

Can You Lose All Your Money in Stocks?

Technically, yes. You can lose all your money in stocks or any other investment that has some degree of risk. However, this is rare. Even if you only hold one stock that does very poorly, you'll usually retain some residual value. The best way to ensure that you don't experience massive losses in stocks is to be well-diversified, research the holdings you invest in, and set thresholds to the downside whereby you will cut your losses and exit positions.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Bankruptcy: What Happens When Public Companies Go Bankrupt."

  2. U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on Taxation, via Internet Archive. “Report of Investigation of Enron Corporation and Related Entities Regarding Federal Tax and Compensation Issues, and Policy Recommendations,” Pages 77 and 84 (Pages 99 and 106 of PDF).

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