Price-to-Earnings (P/E) Ratio, Explained

By Michael Flannelly · March 29, 2024 · 8 minute read

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Price-to-Earnings (P/E) Ratio, Explained

Investors can look at a company’s price to earnings ratio, among many other metrics, to help determine if a stock is a worthy investment. This figure gives an investor a quick read on how much a stock costs compared to that company’s profitability — the earnings.

However, the price to earnings ratio alone does not tell investors everything they need to know about a stock and whether it is a sound investment. But the price to earnings ratio is a helpful tool available for all investors when analyzing stocks.

What Is the Price to Earnings (P/E) Ratio?

The price to earnings ratio (sometimes written as the P/E ratio, PER, or P/E) is a ratio of a company’s current share price relative to the company’s earnings per share (EPS). This ratio provides investors with an understanding of how the market feels about a company (stock price) compared to the company’s profitability (EPS).

One of the main benefits of the P/E ratio is that it gives investors and analysts a way to compare different companies on a more level playing field. The stock price or earnings alone may not be adequate to compare investments, but the P/E ratio can be used to compare the valuations of companies in similar sectors.

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P/E Ratio Formula

The formula for calculating price-to-earnings is fairly simple:

Price to Earnings Ratio = Current Stock Price Ă· Earnings per Share

The price to earnings ratio is calculated by dividing a company’s current stock price (P) by the company’s earnings per share (E).

An investor can find the company’s current share price by looking up the stock’s ticker symbol on any search engine or financial website.

The EPS of a company can also be found on a financial website, but investors should be aware that there are different ways to calculate this figure.

Generally, the EPS is calculated by using a company’s earnings over the previous year, usually called the trailing 12 months (TTM). It is also possible to calculate EPS using the earnings guidance that a company provides in its quarterly earnings release. These are called forward earnings or forward-looking earnings.

These different versions of EPS determine the trailing and forward P/E, respectively.

If a company has yet to report earnings or is reporting losses, then its P/E ratio will be N/A, or not applicable.

Recommended: The Ultimate List of Financial Ratios

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Examples of P/E Ratio Calculation

Company XYZ has a current stock price of $10 per share. The company’s earnings per share was $2 for the previous twelve months. In this example, Company XYZ would have a P/E ratio of 5, which is $10 per share divided by $2 per share.

$10 per share Ă· $2 per share = 5 P/E

With the data related to earnings and stock prices, an investor can calculate P/E with relative ease.

Interpreting the Results of P/E Ratio

Being able to calculate P/E ratio is one thing – being able to interpret it and put it to use as a part of an investment strategy is another.

What is a Good P/E Ratio?

There is no “good” P/E ratio, and the current P/E ratio of a company doesn’t provide much information alone. In the examples above, a high or low P/E ratio does not necessarily make one stock a more attractive investment over the other.

To determine if a P/E ratio suggests a good investment opportunity, an investor should compare it to similar stocks, the overall market, or a company’s past performance.

High P/E Ratio

If the current P/E ratio of a company is high relative to its past P/E ratio or compared to similar companies, it could be an indication that the stock is overvalued. An overvalued stock could mean that investor exuberance boosts the stock price, especially if earnings remain low, thereby representing poor value.

However, a high P/E ratio may indicate widespread investor confidence in a company’s position to grow and expand. This high ratio can indicate a growth stock, where investors believe the company’s future earnings will be higher than current profitability.

Low P/E Ratio

If the current P/E ratio of a company is low, it could indicate that the company’s stock is underpriced and represents a good value. Some analysts believe that stocks with relatively low P/E ratios present buying opportunities, allowing investors to purchase an undervalued stock that still has strong earnings. Investors seeking out these value investments expect a potential for share price growth.

On the other hand, the low P/E ratio may also indicate that investors are actively selling shares and driving the price down. Such a wide-scale selloff would suggest that investors are losing confidence in the stock, and a low P/E is an alarm.

Recommended: How to Evaluate a Stock Before You Buy

Types of P/E Ratios

There are two main P/E ratios: the trailing P/E and the forward P/E. These ratios use different measures of EPS depending on whether an analyst is interested in the past performance of a company (trailing P/E) or the future earnings of a company (forward P/E).

Trailing P/E

The trailing P/E relies on examining the past performance of a stock. It is calculated by dividing the current share price by the earnings per share over the past 12 months (TTM). Some analysts prefer the trailing P/E because it’s based on actual earnings performance rather than guidance that a company may provide.

However, the trailing P/E may be a misleading indicator because a company’s past earnings performance doesn’t necessarily predict future results. Investors want to put their money where they expect future earnings power, not the past.

Forward P/E

The forward P/E uses future earnings guidance rather than a company’s previous earnings. This forward-looking ratio can be helpful because investment decisions are generally better made based on future expectations than past results.

But this doesn’t mean the forward P/E is a flawless indicator. The forward P/E can be problematic because companies may miscalculate earnings expectations, and external analysts may miss on earnings forecasts for a company.

P/E Ratio Comparison

Though popular, the price to earnings ratio is just one of many indicators that investors use when analyzing stocks.

P/E Ratio vs P/S Ratio

The price-to-sales ratio (P/S ratio) is calculated by dividing a company’s current stock price by the company’s revenue per share. Another way to determine the P/S ratio is by dividing the company’s market capitalization by the company’s total revenue. So, while the P/E ratio looks at a company’s bottom line, the P/S ratio is concerned with a company’s top line.

The P/S ratio provides an alternative to the P/E ratio that can be useful when analyzing companies that are young and yet to make a profit. When a company shows negative earnings, they do not have a P/E ratio. The P/S ratio fills that void.

In general, a lower P/S ratio suggests that a company is a more attractive investment.

P/E Ratio vs EPS

Earnings per share (EPS) is the denominator of the P/E ratio equation. EPS is the bottom line of a company, indicating its profitability. It is calculated by dividing a company’s net profit by the number of its common shares. By looking at a company’s EPS over time, an investor can see how the company’s profitability is changing.

Though the EPS metric is good for comparing a company’s profits over time, it can also be misleading when a company repurchases or issues new stock. Those moves could raise or lower the EPS, respectively, even if the net income stays the same.

When analyzing a stock, it is wise to examine both the P/E Ratio and the EPS.

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Pros and Cons of Using P/E Ratio

As mentioned above, there are benefits and drawbacks to using the P/E ratio to evaluate stocks. Here are some of the pros and cons of using the P/E ratio.

Pros and Cons of Using P/E Ratio

Pros Cons
Easy to calculate Based on earnings from the past, or potentially misleading forecasts
Widely used by investors and analysts Can be manipulated with share buybacks
Helps investors compare stocks Can’t be used for companies that have no net income
Can indicate undervalued and overvalued stocks Doesn’t factor in other financial metrics, like debt

The Takeaway

The P/E ratio is a useful metric for investors when evaluating stocks. The ratio can help an investor wrap their heads around the value of a stock and how it compares to similar companies. However, the metric is just a starting point, and investors shouldn’t make decisions based on a stock’s P/E ratio alone.

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What does PE ratio tell you?

P/E ratio tells investors how a company’s revenue relates to its share price, and can be used as an indicator that a stock is either over or undervalued.

What does a PE ratio of 10 mean?

A P/E ratio of 10 means that a stock is trading at ten times the company’s annual profits.

What does a PE ratio of 120 mean?

A P/E ratio of 20 means that a stock is trading at 20 times the company’s annual profits.

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