As any long-term investor in the market can attest, stocks rise and fall — influenced by a mix of economic trends and supply and demand.
Given the inherent volatility of stock values, there are periods when the market is down, and times when it’s gaining steam. So, how low can a stock go? Well, in some cases, stock prices can fall all the way to zero.
What happens when a stock goes to zero? Watching a stock in free fall can induce fear and panic in investors, causing some to sell their holdings. While most every investor aims to buy low and sell high, timing the stock market is very challenging and doesn’t guarantee that investors will see gains.
Sometimes when a stock goes down in value it can present an investment opportunity, but in other cases the stock could fall to zero and never recover. In the latter case, it may benefit investors to sell before the stock price falls all the way down to zero.
What Causes a Stock to Fall to Zero?
When a stock falls to zero, it doesn’t mean that the company is worth nothing. Some companies with very low stock values are still earning money or possess assets. And, some investors buy penny stocks that have extremely low prices.
What happens to a company when stock prices fall to zero? If a company continuously spends more money than it earns, and investors sell off the stock, ultimately, that can lead to the company going bankrupt. Most companies file for either Chapter 7 or Chapter 11 bankruptcy before their stock reaches $0.00.
Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
With a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, the company must sell off its assets until it can repay lenders and creditors. The order that stakeholders get paid is: creditors, bondholders, preferred stockholders, common stockholders.
This means that if the asset sale doesn’t bring in enough money to pay everyone, it’s likely that common shareholders won’t receive a dime. In this case, stockholders lose all the money they had invested in that stock.
Under Chapter 7, stock trading and all business activities must be put on hold.
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy
Under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the company negotiates loan terms with its creditors in order to avoid selling off assets. With Chapter 11, companies can still conduct business and their stock can be traded.
Once a company files for Chapter 11, it is likely that the stock will continue to fall, since many investors won’t have much faith in the business. Sometimes shares are canceled with a Chapter 11 filing. In that case, investors lose all the money they had put into the stock.
Even if a company files for bankruptcy before its stock falls to zero, their attempts to salvage the business may ultimately fail and the stock could become worthless. However, it can take a strong team and business model to go public and get listed on stock exchanges in the first place, so some bankrupt companies may have the potential to make a comeback.
Some companies with very low stock prices get acquired by larger companies before their stock falls to zero. Even a company with a low stock might have a promising product or service that a larger company is able to sell successfully. One example of this is when Alphabet acquired FitBit in 2021.
💡 Quick Tip: All investments come with some degree of risk — and some are riskier than others. Before investing online, decide on your investment goals and how much risk you want to take.
What Happens to a Company When Stock Prices Fall to Zero?
Some stock exchanges delist stocks if they fall below a certain level. For example, the New York Stock Exchange will remove a stock if its share price falls below $1 for 30 days in a row.
And, as mentioned above, if a company files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, its stock will be delisted temporarily.
Can a stock go negative? Fortunately, it is not possible for a stock’s price to go into the negative territory — under zero dollars in value, that is.
Still, if an investor short sells or uses margin trading, they may lose more than they invested. For this reason, margin trading and short selling are risky investment strategies.
Short selling is when an investor predicts that a stock is going to decrease in value. So, rather than buying the stock, they ‘bet’ that it will go down. If the stock does in fact go down, they make money.
But, if the stock ends up increasing in value, they lose money. Potentially, an investor in this scenario could lose more money than they put into the initial short sell.
Margin trading is when an investor borrows money from the brokerage firm to trade stocks. If the investor makes a trade that doesn’t go in their favor, they can end up owing the brokerage firm money.
How Low Can a Stock Go?
Stock prices can fall all the way down to zero. That means the stock loses all of its value and a shareholder’s earnings are typically worthless. In this case, the investor loses what they invested in the stock.
Reasons for a Stock Losing Value Down to Zero
What makes a stock fall to zero? The are a number of reasons that may come into play, including:
• Losses in the company’s revenue or earnings, especially if the losses are persistent
• A perception in the market that the stock is overvalued
• Management issues, shake-ups in the company’s leadership positions, scandal, fraud — in short, anything that can make investor sentiment turn negative
For investors, these are all signs a stock is underperforming and red flags to watch out for.
Types of Stocks Likely to Fall to Zero
What is a stock that falls to zero? Every stock comes with risks, but some are more risky than others. Besides companies on the brink of bankruptcy, there are certain types of businesses that have a higher chance of becoming worthless.
Knowing what to look for and researching and evaluating stocks before buying is key to building a resilient portfolio. Some of these higher risk stocks might include:
Companies With Weak Business Models
Even if a stock is currently performing well, it may fall in the future if the business model is fundamentally flawed. For this reason, many investors prefer to research a company’s practices, team composition, and business model before investing in its stock.
Stocks that trade below $5 are known as penny stocks. These low price stocks tend to be very volatile, as the companies that issue them have low or no profit.
Sometimes penny stocks can even turn out to be scams.
Buying the Dip
Rather than selling stocks when the market declines, some investors believe it can be a good idea to buy while the market is low. By buying the dip, as it’s known, investors pay less for stocks.
And, since these stocks still have the potential to go up in value as the market recovers after the decline, they can be preferred by long-term investors who may have more time to let their portfolio go back up in value.
However, if a company is going bankrupt or otherwise likely to fall to zero, it’s unlikely to offer a strong return on investment.
It’s also very difficult to time the market, so a trader might buy in when they think the market has hit bottom, only to watch it continue to go down.
Generally, building a diversified portfolio can offer higher returns on average over time than trying to time the market based on shorter-term trends or dips.
Examples of Stocks That Fell to Zero
There are two particularly infamous examples of stocks that fell to zero:
In the 1990s, Enron, an energy company, hid massive losses by using accounting tricks. At one point, its stock price was over $90. In 2001, analysts and investors became suspicious and began asking questions. That same year, the company reported huge losses, and its stock plummeted to $0.26 right before it declared bankruptcy.
This telecom company falsely inflated its cash flow and net income by listing expenses as investments to hide losses. Its stock price fell from more than $60 a share to less than $1 before the company declared bankruptcy in 2002.
💡 Quick Tip: When you’re actively investing in stocks, it’s important to ask what types of fees you might have to pay. For example, brokers may charge a flat fee for trading stocks, or require some commission for every trade. Taking the time to manage investment costs can be beneficial over the long term.
How to Prevent Holding a Stock that’s Falling Lower
While it’s true that the market is impossible to predict, there are some measures that investors can take to protect themselves from losses — especially in the case of a stock spiraling towards zero. Below are some common preventative investment measures.
Knowing when to sell a stock is important. Investors can set up a trade to automatically sell shares if a stock reaches a specific price. This type of trade is called a stop loss. It’s a strategy that could help prevent losses in the case of an individual stock or overall market drop.
There are multiple types of stop losses, including trailing stops and hard stops. Trailing stops move the stop level up as the stock rises in value, but stay in place if the stock falls. Hard stops are fixed at a specific price and will execute if the stock falls to that price.
Limit orders allow investors to set the price at which they want to buy a stock. An investor selects the price and the number of shares they wish to buy. In practice, the order only executes if the stock then hits that price.
This is one way for traders to step away without worrying that they’ll be buying in at a price they didn’t want.
A put option is a type of order that gives traders the option to sell or short-sell a specific amount of stock at a specific price, within a certain time frame. If a stock decreases in value in this case, the trader can still sell it at a higher price than it previously held.
Diversifying Asset Holdings
In an effort to prevent losses, investors may want to diversify their portfolios into a mix of non-correlated assets — dividing their holdings between assets at a higher and lower risk of fluctuating in value.
In a diversified portfolio, if one asset class decreases in value, the other types may not. Over time, the ups and downs of each asset could possibly balance the losses in each.
Setting Up a Stock Portfolio
By researching companies and setting up a portfolio according to one’s personal risk tolerance, and then keeping tabs on the assets in that portfolio to monitor their performance, it may be possible to help hedge against a stock sinking down to zero.
At what point does a stock become worthless?
A stock becomes worthless when it falls to zero and has no value. In this case, an investor loses the money they invested in the stock.
How low can a stock go before being removed?
Some stock exchanges delist stocks if they fall below a certain level. The New York Stock Exchange will remove a stock if its share price falls below $1 for 30 days in a row, for instance.
Do you owe money if a stock goes negative?
No. A stock price can’t go negative, or, that is, fall below zero. So an investor does not owe anyone money. They will, however, lose whatever money they invested in the stock if the stock falls to zero.
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