The price-to-earnings ratio is by far the most used financial ratio to analyze stocks, but what happens when a company is losing money instead of generating profits? Can a stock have a negative P/E ratio? What does it mean when a stock has a negative price-to-earnings?

In this article, we will analyze what a negative price-to-earnings ratio means, and how you should use it when evaluating and analyzing a stock.

What is a negative P/E ratio?

A negative price-to-earnings signals that the company is unprofitable, and therefore it is currently losing money. The price-to-earnings is calculated based on the stock price divided by its earnings per share. Since a stock price is always a positive number, the only way for a stock to have a negative P/E ratio is if the earnings are negative, and that means that the company is losing money.

Investors use a price-to-earnings ratio to assess a company’s valuation, however, when a company is losing money the price-to-earnings will be negative.

What does a negative pe ratio mean?

Obviously, a negative price-to-earnings ratio means that the company is unprofitable, but it is also important to understand how the negative P/E ratio cannot be used in the same way as a positive price-to-earnings ratio.

A positive P/E ratio represents how many years it will take for the company to generate the same earnings as the price of the stock, the negative P/E will simply represent how many years it will take before the company loses your initial investment.

The lower the negative price-to-earnings ratio, the closer the company will be to turning a profit.

How a negative P/E ratio works

Some financial data providers often do not show negative P/E ratios, because it can be confusing to understand this concept. Here is an example:

Stock A is trading at \$10, and its EPS is \$1. This means that the P/E ratio will be 10.

Now let's look at another example of a company that is losing money.

Stock B is trading at \$10, and it has -\$1 EPS, stock B has a P/E ratio of -10.

Let’s say that stock B improves its results and now has -\$0.5 in EPS. That means that its P/E ratio went from -10 to -20.

So when a company reduces its losses, the P/E ratio will decline until the breakeven level of zero. This is why most financial data providers will seldomly show a negative P/E ratio because it can be confusing. The less money the company loses, the lower its negative P/E ratio will be. The lower the negative P/E ratio, the less money the company is losing, and the closer it is to reaching profitability.

How common is a negative P/E ratio?

As we have mentioned, some financial data providers often do not show negative P/E ratios. This is because it can be misunderstood. Negative P/E ratios are especially common across high-growth companies, and sectors. Sectors like technology, and biotechnology where companies have to spend a considerable amount of money to develop their products and services.

Sectors or companies that are highly dependent on high R&D spending, or CAPEX are also prone to having losses. High-growth companies tend to sacrifice profitability in the early years, in order to grow revenues. Because of this, it is particularly common also among startups.

Why stocks have negative price-to-earnings ratios

There are several reasons that might explain why a company has a negative P/E ratio and is losing money. There are some sectors where losses are common among companies, and that should also be kept in mind. However, there are a few key reasons that tend to be common among certain stocks.

A flawed business model can impact a company’s profitability. A company with a flawed business model means that it is constantly losing market share to its competitors, and it is bound to fail. This is perhaps the biggest risk with a negative P/E ratio, and you might want to avoid these stocks.

Declining sector

Some stocks in declining sectors are also known for having a negative P/E ratio. Companies in industries that are struggling will often have losses. It is therefore common for these stocks to have a negative price-to-earnings ratio.

Changing sectors

The fast-paced world we live in today is constantly changing, and companies and sectors that are trying to adapt to recent changes in their business environment will often lose money. This happens because there are investments that need to be made. There are also product and service offerings that need to be revised.

High-growth stocks

Negative P/E ratios are most commonly found among high-growth stocks. These companies will usually sacrifice their bottom line to improve their top line. In essence to increase revenues, and acquire more customers, management will often put more emphasis on revenue growth. In the short-term losses might be expected for these companies, but if it is a high-quality growth company, it will eventually reach profitability.

Impairments

Impairments can happen for a number of reasons, but they are often associated with a decline in a company’s asset value. This decline will often mean that a particular asset the company holds, is no longer as valuable as it was accounted for. In turn, companies that have impairments in a particular time frame might lose money, and this will push the stock to have a negative P/E ratio.

Accounting changes

Companies will use different accounting methods, and this can also influence their results. When a company changes its accounting method, it might influence its earnings, and based on this new method, the company might have a loss. The stock can temporarily have a negative P/E ratio.

Companies and sectors often have setbacks that can happen for a number of reasons, and they might influence earnings. With that in mind, a temporary setback might push a company to lose money in a certain time period. If it happens the stock will have a negative price-to-earnings ratio.

Cyclical stock

Some stocks due to the nature of their business are highly cyclical. This in turn means that the company might lose money during a certain period of time. During that period, the stock has a negative P/E ratio, representing the negative earnings of the period.

Seasonal stock

There are also companies whose results are highly driven by seasonal factors. This means that during short periods of time, the company might have losses. For that reason, these seasonal stocks might have a negative P/E ratio.

Lack of investments

Competition across sectors and industries is fierce. A company that has negative earnings might signal that it is not investing properly, or its return on investments is low. This can be a warning signal for investors in the stock and can push its P/E ratio into negative territory.

Management inefficiency

A high-quality management team will make sure that the company is consistently profitable. Losses can sometimes be attributed to a lack of oversight by some management teams, and this could push the company to lose money.

Higher costs

Another factor that can highly influence profitability, and earnings are costs. Costs may go up for a number of reasons, and they can have a direct impact on the company’s profitability. It is important to know that a stock can have a negative price-to-earnings ratio due to higher costs that push the company to lose money.

How to use a negative P/E ratio

A negative P/E ratio allows investors to forecast how many years it will take before the company loses the equivalent of its initial investment. It can also be extremely useful when analyzing the company’s performance historically. Comparing the negative P/E over time might give an accurate idea of how the company is doing.

A company that has a negative P/E ratio but it is reducing its losses, might signal that it is about to reach profitability. This means that the lower the negative P/E ratio the less money a company is losing, on a per-share basis. It can also be used to avoid certain stocks, whose losses tend to increase over time.

When it comes to analyzing stocks with a negative P/E ratio, it is crucial to understand what is the reason behind the losses. This is the key aspect to invest in unprofitable companies. There needs to be a clear path to profitability to justify your investment.

Is a negative P/E ratio good or bad?

A negative P/E ratio on its own does not mean much, other than the fact that the company is losing money, you cannot really understand much more by just looking at this particular ratio. In more established companies, it can be a sign that for some reason changes need to be implemented.

For relatively new companies, it is a common trait. It just means that the company is channeling its capital toward growth. In a broader sense, a negative price-to-earnings ratio is bad because it shows that the company is losing money. Every company is different and for that reason, without thoroughly analyzing each company, you cannot draw many conclusions from a negative P/E ratio.

Buying stocks with a negative P/E ratio

The negative P/E ratio is as useful as a positive P/E ratio, but it is important to fully understand the concept. For investors looking for companies with negative P/E ratios, it is important to put things into a historical perspective. Analyzing how the company is improving its results, and reducing its losses is a key step to investing in distressed, or high-growth stocks.

As an investor, you want to make sure that the stocks you invest in will be able to generate a profit in the future. With that in mind, you want to make sure that the stock you are investing in, clearly has a path to profitability. Making sure that you only invest in negative price-to-earnings companies that will become profitable is the key.