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Proto Labs (NYSE:PRLB) shares have had a really impressive month, gaining 32%, after some slippage. The bad news is that even after that recovery shareholders are still underwater by about 8.6% for the full year.
Assuming no other changes, a sharply higher share price makes a stock less attractive to potential buyers. 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. Perhaps the simplest way to get a read on investors' expectations of a business is to look at its Price to Earnings Ratio (PE Ratio). A high P/E implies that investors have high expectations of what a company can achieve compared to a company with a low P/E ratio.
Does Proto Labs Have A Relatively High Or Low P/E For Its Industry?
Proto Labs's P/E of 42.89 indicates some degree of optimism towards the stock. You can see in the image below that the average P/E (16.0) for companies in the machinery industry is lower than Proto Labs's P/E.
Its relatively high P/E ratio indicates that Proto Labs shareholders think it will perform better than other companies in its industry classification. 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.
How Growth Rates Impact P/E Ratios
Probably the most important factor in determining what P/E a company trades on is the earnings growth. If earnings are growing quickly, then the 'E' in the equation will increase faster than it would otherwise. That means even if the current P/E is high, it will reduce over time if the share price stays flat. A lower P/E should indicate the stock is cheap relative to others -- and that may attract buyers.
Proto Labs's earnings per share fell by 15% in the last twelve months. But EPS is up 7.3% over the last 5 years.
Remember: P/E Ratios Don't Consider The Balance Sheet
One drawback of using a P/E ratio is that it considers market capitalization, but not the balance sheet. So it won't reflect the advantage of cash, or disadvantage of debt. The exact same company would hypothetically deserve a higher P/E ratio if it had a strong balance sheet, than if it had a weak one with lots of debt, because a cashed up company can spend on growth.
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.
So What Does Proto Labs's Balance Sheet Tell Us?
The extra options and safety that comes with Proto Labs's US$130m net cash position means that it deserves a higher P/E than it would if it had a lot of net debt.
The Verdict On Proto Labs's P/E Ratio
Proto Labs has a P/E of 42.9. That's significantly higher than the average in its market, which is 14.2. The recent drop in earnings per share would make some investors cautious, but the healthy balance sheet means the company retains the potential for future growth. If this growth fails to materialise, the current high P/E could prove to be temporary, as the share price falls. What is very clear is that the market has become significantly more optimistic about Proto Labs over the last month, with the P/E ratio rising from 32.5 back then to 42.9 today. For those who prefer to invest with the flow of momentum, that might mean it's time to put the stock on a watchlist, or research it. But the contrarian may see it as a missed opportunity.
When the market is wrong about a stock, it gives savvy investors an opportunity. People often underestimate remarkable growth -- so investors can make money when fast growth is not fully appreciated. So this free visual report on analyst forecasts could hold the key to an excellent investment decision.
You might be able to find a better buy than Proto Labs. 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).
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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