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A Sliding Share Price Has Us Looking At W. R. Berkley Corporation's (NYSE:WRB) P/E Ratio

Simply Wall St

To the annoyance of some shareholders, W. R. Berkley (NYSE:WRB) shares are down a considerable 40% in the last month. Even longer term holders have taken a real hit with the stock declining 14% in the last year.

Assuming nothing else has changed, a lower share price makes a stock more 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). So, on certain occasions, long term focussed investors try to take advantage of pessimistic expectations to buy shares at a better price. 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.

View our latest analysis for W. R. Berkley

Does W. R. Berkley Have A Relatively High Or Low P/E For Its Industry?

W. R. Berkley's P/E of 13.29 indicates some degree of optimism towards the stock. The image below shows that W. R. Berkley has a higher P/E than the average (8.7) P/E for companies in the insurance industry.

NYSE:WRB Price Estimation Relative to Market, March 17th 2020

W. R. Berkley's P/E tells us that market participants think the company will perform better than its industry peers, going forward. Shareholders are clearly optimistic, but the future is always uncertain. So investors should delve deeper. I like to check if company insiders have been buying or selling.

How Growth Rates Impact P/E Ratios

Earnings growth rates have a big influence on P/E ratios. 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. Then, a lower P/E should attract more buyers, pushing the share price up.

W. R. Berkley increased earnings per share by 6.1% last year. And it has bolstered its earnings per share by 1.1% per year over the last five years.

A Limitation: P/E Ratios Ignore Debt and Cash In The Bank

One drawback of using a P/E ratio is that it considers market capitalization, but not the balance sheet. 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).

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.

How Does W. R. Berkley's Debt Impact Its P/E Ratio?

W. R. Berkley's net debt is 14% of its market cap. This could bring some additional risk, and reduce the number of investment options for management; worth remembering if you compare its P/E to businesses without debt.

The Verdict On W. R. Berkley's P/E Ratio

W. R. Berkley trades on a P/E ratio of 13.3, which is fairly close to the US market average of 12.7. When you consider the modest EPS growth last year (along with some debt), it seems the market thinks the growth is sustainable. What can be absolutely certain is that the market has become significantly less optimistic about W. R. Berkley over the last month, with the P/E ratio falling from 22.2 back then to 13.3 today. For those who prefer to invest with the flow of momentum, that might be a bad sign, but for a contrarian, it may signal opportunity.

Investors have an opportunity when market expectations about a stock are wrong. 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 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.

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. Thank you for reading.