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Despite Its High P/E Ratio, Is AstraZeneca PLC (LON:AZN) Still Undervalued?

Simply Wall St

This article is written for those who want to get better at using price to earnings ratios (P/E ratios). We'll apply a basic P/E ratio analysis to AstraZeneca PLC's (LON:AZN), to help you decide if the stock is worth further research. AstraZeneca has a P/E ratio of 39.02, based on the last twelve months. In other words, at today's prices, investors are paying £39.02 for every £1 in prior year profit.

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View our latest analysis for AstraZeneca

How Do I Calculate AstraZeneca's Price To Earnings Ratio?

The formula for price to earnings is:

Price to Earnings Ratio = Share Price (in reporting currency) ÷ Earnings per Share (EPS)

Or for AstraZeneca:

P/E of 39.02 = $74.15 (Note: this is the share price in the reporting currency, namely, USD ) ÷ $1.9 (Based on the year to March 2019.)

Is A High Price-to-Earnings Ratio Good?

A higher P/E ratio means that investors are paying a higher price for each £1 of company earnings. That is not a good or a bad thing per se, but a high P/E does imply buyers are optimistic about the future.

How Growth Rates Impact P/E Ratios

If earnings fall then in the future the 'E' will be lower. 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.

AstraZeneca shrunk earnings per share by 14% over the last year. But EPS is up 3.1% over the last 5 years. And over the longer term (3 years) earnings per share have decreased 6.3% annually. This could justify a low P/E.

How Does AstraZeneca's P/E Ratio Compare To Its Peers?

We can get an indication of market expectations by looking at the P/E ratio. You can see in the image below that the average P/E (21.2) for companies in the pharmaceuticals industry is lower than AstraZeneca's P/E.

LSE:AZN Price Estimation Relative to Market, May 21st 2019

That means that the market expects AstraZeneca will outperform other companies in its industry. Clearly the market expects growth, but it isn't guaranteed. So investors should delve deeper. I like to check if company insiders have been buying or selling.

Remember: P/E Ratios Don't Consider The Balance Sheet

It's important to note that the P/E ratio considers the market capitalization, not the enterprise value. That means it doesn't take debt or cash into account. Hypothetically, a company could reduce its future P/E ratio by spending its cash (or taking on debt) to achieve higher earnings.

Such expenditure might be good or bad, in the long term, but the point here is that the balance sheet is not reflected by this ratio.

So What Does AstraZeneca's Balance Sheet Tell Us?

AstraZeneca has net debt worth 17% of its market capitalization. That's enough debt to impact the P/E ratio a little; so keep it in mind if you're comparing it to companies without debt.

The Bottom Line On AstraZeneca's P/E Ratio

AstraZeneca has a P/E of 39. That's higher than the average in the GB market, which is 16.2. With modest debt but no EPS growth in the last year, it's fair to say the P/E implies some optimism about future earnings, from the market.

Investors should be looking to buy stocks that the market is wrong about. People often underestimate remarkable growth -- so investors can make money when fast growth is not fully appreciated. So this free visualization of the analyst consensus on future earnings could help you make the right decision about whether to buy, sell, or hold.

You might be able to find a better buy than AstraZeneca. If you want a selection of possible winners, check out this free list of interesting companies that trade on a P/E below 20 (but have proven they can grow earnings).

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. 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. Thank you for reading.