It's great to see American Public Education (NASDAQ:APEI) shareholders have their patience rewarded with a 36% share price pop in the last month. The full year gain of 13% is pretty reasonable, too.
All else being equal, a sharp share price increase should make a stock less attractive to potential investors. In the long term, share prices tend to follow earnings per share, but in the short term prices bounce around in response to short term factors (which are not always obvious). The implication here is that deep value investors might steer clear when expectations of a company are too high. One way to gauge market expectations of a stock is to look at its Price to Earnings Ratio (PE Ratio). A high P/E ratio means that investors have a high expectation about future growth, while a low P/E ratio means they have low expectations about future growth.
Does American Public Education Have A Relatively High Or Low P/E For Its Industry?
We can tell from its P/E ratio of 44.91 that there is some investor optimism about American Public Education. You can see in the image below that the average P/E (17.9) for companies in the consumer services industry is lower than American Public Education's P/E.
American Public Education's P/E tells us that market participants think the company will perform better than its industry peers, going forward. The market is optimistic about the future, but that doesn't guarantee future growth. So investors should always consider the P/E ratio alongside other factors, such as whether company directors have been buying shares.
How Growth Rates Impact P/E Ratios
When earnings fall, the 'E' decreases, over time. Therefore, even if you pay a low multiple of earnings now, that multiple will become higher in the future. A higher P/E should indicate the stock is expensive relative to others -- and that may encourage shareholders to sell.
American Public Education's earnings per share fell by 46% in the last twelve months. And it has shrunk its earnings per share by 20% per year over the last five years. This might lead to muted expectations.
A Limitation: P/E Ratios Ignore Debt and Cash In The Bank
Don't forget that the P/E ratio considers market capitalization. Thus, the metric does not reflect cash or debt held by the company. Theoretically, a business can improve its earnings (and produce a lower P/E in the future) by investing in growth. That means taking on debt (or spending its cash).
While growth expenditure doesn't always pay off, the point is that it is a good option to have; but one that the P/E ratio ignores.
How Does American Public Education's Debt Impact Its P/E Ratio?
With net cash of US$195m, American Public Education has a very strong balance sheet, which may be important for its business. Having said that, at 40% of its market capitalization the cash hoard would contribute towards a higher P/E ratio.
The Bottom Line On American Public Education's P/E Ratio
American Public Education has a P/E of 44.9. That's significantly higher than the average in its market, which is 14.3. Falling earnings per share is probably keeping traditional value investors away, but the net cash position means the company has time to improve: and the high P/E suggests the market thinks it will. What we know for sure is that investors have become much more excited about American Public Education recently, since they have pushed its P/E ratio from 33.1 to 44.9 over the last month. If you like to buy stocks that have recently impressed the market, then this one might be a candidate; but if you prefer to invest when there is 'blood in the streets', then you may feel the opportunity has passed.
Investors should be looking to buy stocks that the market is wrong about. As value investor Benjamin Graham famously said, 'In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine. So this free report on the analyst consensus forecasts could help you make a master move on this stock.
Of course, you might find a fantastic investment by looking at a few good candidates. So take a peek at this free list of companies with modest (or no) debt, trading on a P/E below 20.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned.
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