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Is Sonic Automotive, Inc.'s (NYSE:SAH) P/E Ratio Really That Good?

Simply Wall St

The goal of this article is to teach you how to use price to earnings ratios (P/E ratios). We'll look at Sonic Automotive, Inc.'s (NYSE:SAH) P/E ratio and reflect on what it tells us about the company's share price. Looking at earnings over the last twelve months, Sonic Automotive has a P/E ratio of 10.39. In other words, at today's prices, investors are paying $10.39 for every $1 in prior year profit.

See our latest analysis for Sonic Automotive

How Do You Calculate A P/E Ratio?

The formula for price to earnings is:

Price to Earnings Ratio = Share Price ÷ Earnings per Share (EPS)

Or for Sonic Automotive:

P/E of 10.39 = $29.10 ÷ $2.80 (Based on the year to September 2019.)

Is A High P/E Ratio Good?

The higher the P/E ratio, the higher the price tag of a business, relative to its trailing earnings. That isn't a good or a bad thing on its own, but a high P/E means that buyers have a higher opinion of the business's prospects, relative to stocks with a lower P/E.

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

We can get an indication of market expectations by looking at the P/E ratio. The image below shows that Sonic Automotive has a lower P/E than the average (16.8) P/E for companies in the specialty retail industry.

NYSE:SAH Price Estimation Relative to Market, January 10th 2020

Sonic Automotive's P/E tells us that market participants think it will not fare as well as its peers in the same industry. Since the market seems unimpressed with Sonic Automotive, it's quite possible it could surprise on the upside. It is arguably worth checking if insiders are buying shares, because that might imply they believe the stock is undervalued.

How Growth Rates Impact P/E Ratios

Generally speaking the rate of earnings growth has a profound impact on a company's P/E multiple. That's because companies that grow earnings per share quickly will rapidly increase the 'E' in the equation. Therefore, even if you pay a high multiple of earnings now, that multiple will become lower in the future. So while a stock may look expensive based on past earnings, it could be cheap based on future earnings.

Sonic Automotive increased earnings per share by a whopping 30% last year. And it has bolstered its earnings per share by 7.8% per year over the last five years. I'd therefore be a little surprised if its P/E ratio was not relatively high.

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

The 'Price' in P/E reflects the market capitalization of the company. That means it doesn't take debt or cash into account. 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.

Sonic Automotive's Balance Sheet

Sonic Automotive has net debt worth a very significant 176% of its market capitalization. This is a relatively high level of debt, so the stock probably deserves a relatively low P/E ratio. Keep that in mind when comparing it to other companies.

The Verdict On Sonic Automotive's P/E Ratio

Sonic Automotive's P/E is 10.4 which is below average (18.9) in the US market. While the EPS growth last year was strong, the significant debt levels reduce the number of options available to management. The low P/E ratio suggests current market expectations are muted, implying these levels of growth will not continue.

Investors should be looking to buy stocks that the market is wrong about. If the reality for a company is not as bad as the P/E ratio indicates, then the share price should increase as the market realizes this. 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.

But note: Sonic Automotive may not be the best stock to buy. So take a peek at this free list of interesting companies with strong recent earnings growth (and a P/E ratio 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.