Why Unitil Corporation’s (NYSE:UTL) High P/E Ratio Isn’t Necessarily A Bad Thing

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This article is written for those who want to get better at using price to earnings ratios (P/E ratios). We’ll look at Unitil Corporation’s (NYSE:UTL) P/E ratio and reflect on what it tells us about the company’s share price. Unitil has a P/E ratio of 20.36, based on the last twelve months. That corresponds to an earnings yield of approximately 4.9%.

Check out our latest analysis for Unitil

How Do I Calculate A Price To Earnings Ratio?

The formula for price to earnings is:

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

Or for Unitil:

P/E of 20.36 = $60.21 ÷ $2.96 (Based on the trailing twelve months to March 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 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

Probably the most important factor in determining what P/E a company trades on is the earnings growth. Earnings growth means that in the future the ‘E’ will be higher. That means even if the current P/E is high, it will reduce over time if the share price stays flat. So while a stock may look expensive based on past earnings, it could be cheap based on future earnings.

Notably, Unitil grew EPS by a whopping 31% in the last year. And its annual EPS growth rate over 5 years is 12%. So we’d generally expect it to have a relatively high P/E ratio.

Does Unitil Have A Relatively High Or Low P/E For Its Industry?

The P/E ratio indicates whether the market has higher or lower expectations of a company. You can see in the image below that the average P/E (20.4) for companies in the integrated utilities industry is roughly the same as Unitil’s P/E.

NYSE:UTL Price Estimation Relative to Market, June 20th 2019
NYSE:UTL Price Estimation Relative to Market, June 20th 2019

Unitil’s P/E tells us that market participants think its prospects are roughly in line with its industry. So if Unitil actually outperforms its peers going forward, that should be a positive for the share price. Checking factors such as the tenure of the board and management could help you form your own view on if that will happen.

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

The ‘Price’ in P/E reflects the market capitalization of the company. So it won’t reflect the advantage of cash, or disadvantage of debt. 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 spending might be good or bad, overall, but the key point here is that you need to look at debt to understand the P/E ratio in context.

Unitil’s Balance Sheet

Unitil’s net debt is 51% of its market cap. This is enough debt that you’d have to make some adjustments before using the P/E ratio to compare it to a company with net cash.

The Verdict On Unitil’s P/E Ratio

Unitil’s P/E is 20.4 which is above average (17.9) in the US market. Its meaningful level of debt should warrant a lower P/E ratio, but the fast EPS growth is a positive. So it seems likely the market is overlooking the debt because of the fast earnings growth.

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 visual report on analyst forecasts could hold the key to an excellent investment decision.

Of course you might be able to find a better stock than Unitil. So you may wish to see this free collection of other companies that have grown earnings strongly.

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.