What Is the Altman Z-Score?

The Altman Z-score is the output of a credit-strength test that gauges a publicly traded manufacturing company's likelihood of bankruptcy.

Key Takeaways

  • The Altman Z-score is a formula for determining whether a company, notably in the manufacturing space, is headed for bankruptcy. 
  • The formula takes into account profitability, leverage, liquidity, solvency, and activity ratios. 
  • An Altman Z-score close to 1.8 suggests a company might be headed for bankruptcy, while a score closer to 3 suggests a company is in solid financial positioning.
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Z-Score

Understanding the Altman Z-Score

The Altman Z-score, a variation of the traditional z-score in statistics, is based on five financial ratios that can be calculated from data found on a company's annual 10-K report. It uses profitability, leverage, liquidity, solvency, and activity to predict whether a company has a high probability of becoming insolvent.

NYU Stern Finance Professor Edward Altman developed the Altman Z-score formula in 1967, and it was published in 1968. Over the years, Altman has continued to revaluate his Z-score. From 1969 until 1975, Altman looked at 86 companies in distress, then 110 from 1976 to 1995, and finally 120 from 1996 to 1999, finding that the Z-score had an accuracy of between 82% and 94%.

In 2012, he released an updated version called the Altman Z-score Plus that one can use to evaluate public and private companies, manufacturing and non-manufacturing companies, and U.S. and non-U.S. companies. One can use Altman Z-score Plus to evaluate corporate credit risk. The Altman Z-score has become a reliable measure of calculating credit risk.

How to Calculate the Altman Z-Score

One can calculate the Altman Z-score as follows:

Altman Z-Score = 1.2A + 1.4B + 3.3C + 0.6D + 1.0E

Where:

  • A = working capital / total assets
  • B = retained earnings / total assets
  • C = earnings before interest and tax / total assets
  • D = market value of equity / total liabilities
  • E = sales / total assets

A score below 1.8 means it's likely the company is headed for bankruptcy, while companies with scores above 3 are not likely to go bankrupt. Investors can use Altman Z-scores to determine whether they should buy or sell a stock if they're concerned about the company's underlying financial strength. Investors may consider purchasing a stock if its Altman Z-Score value is closer to 3 and selling or shorting a stock if the value is closer to 1.8.

2008 Financial Crisis

In 2007, the credit ratings of specific asset-related securities had been rated higher than they should have been. The Altman Z-score indicated that the companies' risks were increasing significantly and may have been heading for bankruptcy.

Altman calculated that the median Altman Z-score of companies in 2007 was 1.81. These companies' credit ratings were equivalent to a B. This indicated that 50% of the firms should have had lower ratings, were highly distressed, and had a high probability of becoming bankrupt.

Altman's calculations led him to believe a crisis would occur and there would be a meltdown in the credit market. He believed the crisis would stem from corporate defaults, but the meltdown, which brought about the 2008 financial crisis, began with mortgage-backed securities (MBS). However, corporations soon defaulted in 2009 at the second-highest rate in history.

How Is the Altman Z-Score Calculated?

The Altman Z-score, a variation of the traditional z-score in statistics, is based on five financial ratios that can be calculated from data found on a company's annual 10-K report. The formula for Altman Z-Score is 1.2*(working capital / total assets) + 1.4*(retained earnings / total assets) + 3.3*(earnings before interest and tax / total assets) + 0.6*(market value of equity / total liabilities) + 1.0*(sales / total assets).

How Should an Investor Interpret the Altman Z-Score?

Investors can use Altman Z-score Plus to evaluate corporate credit risk. A score below 1.8 signals the company is likely headed for bankruptcy, while companies with scores above 3 are not likely to go bankrupt. Investors may consider purchasing a stock if its Altman Z-Score value is closer to 3 and selling, or shorting, a stock if the value is closer to 1.8.

Did the Altman Z-Score Predict the 2008 Financial Crisis?

In 2007, Altman's Z-score indicated that the companies' risks were increasing significantly. The median Altman Z-score of companies in 2007 was 1.81, which is very close to the threshold that would indicate a high probability of bankruptcy. Altman's calculations led him to believe a crisis would occur that would stem from corporate defaults, but the meltdown, which brought about the 2008 financial crisis, began with mortgage-backed securities (MBS). However, corporations soon defaulted in 2009 at the second-highest rate in history.