Penny Stocks, What You Need To Know

Posted on Thursday, July 26th, 2018 MarketBeat Staff

In investing, as in life, you get what you pay for. Still, some investors are drawn to the idea of penny stocks. As their name implies, these stocks promise a large reward for a small risk. This article will help you understand what penny stocks are, where you can find them, why investors may get involved with them, and if they should be part of your portfolio.

What is a penny stock?

There is no consensus as to what price level defines a penny stock. What is clear is that a more apt name for these stocks would be “pennies on the dollar” stock. Some analysts will say for a stock to be a penny stock it has to sell for $1 or less. However, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) defines a penny stock as one that trades for less than five dollars a share.

What makes penny stocks so attractive is easy to see. They promise investors a high return for a minimal investment. An investor that pays 25 cents a share would only need to see the stock rise to 50 cents a share to double their money. Some investors are equally seduced by the idea that the low cost of entry will allow them to buy a large number of shares, further increasing their potential reward. On the face of it, that sounds logical, but as we’ll explain there are other factors to consider.

Where can I find a listing of penny stocks?

To be fair, there are penny stocks listed on the major exchanges (i.e. Nasdaq, NYSE). To be listed on one of the major exchanges, however, means that the companies have to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and meet all their minimum filing requirements. While this can give you confidence that the company is legitimate, the fact that they are regulated removes some of the speculative nature of these stocks.

And it’s their speculative nature that makes these stocks appealing to many investors. However, “let the buyer beware” is very applicable when you look beyond the major exchanges to find a penny stock to invest in.

To begin with, these stocks are primarily listed in two places: the Pink Sheets and the Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board (OTCBB).  The pink sheets are a compilation of daily publications by the National Quotation Bureau. The companies listed on the pink sheets do not have to file with the SEC and do not need to meet minimum filing requirements, such as submitting a recent financial report. The penny stocks that are found on the OTCBB are still not listed on any of the major exchanges, but they do have to meet some minimum requirements. All this means that you, as an investor, will have a lack of information. And when it comes to deciding where to invest your money, information is power.

So why the cloak-and-dagger listings? Simply put, many penny stock companies are not financially healthy. Think about the fundamentals that many institutional investors look for when investing in a company. What is the company’s debt-to-income ratio (i.e. do they have liquidity)? Do they have a good market capitalization? This gives an investor a key to understanding how large the company is. And finally, what is the bid-ask ratio (i.e. the difference between the highest price that a buyer will pay and the lowest price a seller will sell). When this range is low (or tight), it means that, barring a major event or announcement, the price will not generally swing that much.

Many penny stock companies are considered a high risk in all of these areas. First, they are usually highly leveraged and in some cases may even be in bankruptcy. Second, they generally have a small market cap, which means the value of their outstanding shares is low. These companies can offer a higher margin of growth but also increase investor risk. Finally, the spread between their bid price and their ask price is usually large. This is significant because when securities trade within a fairly tight range, it reduces an investor’s exposure to risk because they have time to enter or exit a position.

Why do investors get involved with penny stocks?

Once again, it’s important to remember that when it comes to stocks, even penny stocks, there are no absolutes. It’s fair to say that all penny stock companies have some level of risk; otherwise, their share price would be higher. However, in some cases, an established company may just be going through a difficult time, but new leadership is in place and their long-term outlook is good. Or there could be a startup that truly just needs some capital to get off the ground. To determine if the company fits into one of these categories is to understand the difference between speculating and investing.

Many people who dabble in penny stocks are speculators, even gamblers. They are attracted to the potential reward of these stocks. They are not as interested in fundamental analysis or technical analysis. They are buying on emotion and they are justifying the facts. Most successful investors, on the other hand, need to see evidence of a likely return before investing their money into a given stock. They are not ruled by their emotions.

What are the risks of investing in penny stocks?

As we’ve mentioned, penny stocks are volatile. And any time you put your money into a volatile investment, there is a high degree of risk. What can make penny stocks riskier is the potential for fraud. This can manifest itself in many forms.

An investor may learn about a company from a newsletter that promises meteoric gains. These newsletters can appear very credible. However, if you read the disclaimers, you’ll find that in many cases, the company was paying the newsletter editor for their endorsement. This should be a gigantic red flag for you because if a company was a legitimately good investment, it wouldn’t need to pay to get an endorsement.

So how do you make money in penny stocks?

Despite their inherently risky nature, you can make money in penny stocks. Remember, no investment is without risk, but when it comes to penny stocks, there are some steps you can take to help minimize your exposure.

First, limit the percentage of your investable assets. Most experts say your exposure to penny stocks should be no more than 5-10 percent of your portfolio. Many experts suggest, as a best practice, you limit your exposure to any individual penny stock to 1 or 2 percent of your portfolio.

In personal finance, this might be equivalent to your “blow money”. This is the money that you can afford to lose and speculate with.  An important point to remember is to keep the exposure within this range. Penny stocks should be viewed as short-term investments. So if you do make a profit off of a penny stock, you should look to sell and invest that money into your long-term investments, thus keeping your exposure to penny stocks at a comfortable level.

The right question to ask is if I lost all of the money into these stocks, would I still be okay?

So with the idea that these are short-term investments, a second consideration would be to ensure that you can easily trade these stocks. One way to do this is to look at the average daily trading volume. Since it’s possible for you to own a large number of shares, it’s important that you pick a stock that allows you to sell a large number of these shares if necessary. In some cases, if the volume of a stock is only 1,500 shares a day and you own over 15,000 shares, that means there aren’t enough buyers for you to get out of your position quickly. So the profit you see on paper will never materialize. 

And, since you’ll be looking to trade these stocks rather quickly, you should make sure that you find a broker that is not going to charge you special fees or put in volume restrictions. Essentially, you want to be able to trade these stocks just as you would a regular stock.

An old-school tip that can help you decide if a stock is worth your risk, particularly for beginners, is to consider paper trading. This is a very simple concept where you invest an imaginary amount of money and then track your trades on pen and paper without exposing actual money. What this can help you see is how quickly a stock is moving and how much volume is changing hands.  After a couple of months of paper trading, you’ll be in a much better position to decide if investing in penny stocks is really for you.

Finally, remember to do your homework. You can find quality companies to invest in, particularly at the end of a bear cycle. It may be tempting to invest in the latest “hot stock or industry”. The penny stock industry is littered with companies that advertise the potential to make money in oil, gas, gold and other precious metals. However, if information about a company is not readily available, or if a company seems reluctant to provide that information to you, then it’s a sign that you should look for another investment.

Another good mantra to remember with penny stocks is to focus on companies where you may have some interest and/or expertise. While this may not sound exciting, because after all, professional athletes want to be rock stars and vice versa, it is vitally important. If you are a programmer, you will be much more likely to separate a tech guru’s hype from real innovation.

There are many good stock screening services available to help you find potential penny stock companies. This should not be the extent of your research, but it could help you create a quick short list in an industry that you can then individually research. Considering there are, literally hundreds of penny stock companies, having a tool that can help you uncover potential candidates can help focus your efforts.

The last word on penny stocks

While no investment is without risks, penny stocks are particularly risky investments. It can be difficult to understand the real value of a penny stock company. At the depth of the financial crisis in 2009, there were several companies who had drifted down to the level of penny stocks. In some cases, you can find one of these companies and snap them up when they are going through a rough cycle. On the other end, you may be looking at startup companies that are looking for investment capital with the promise of a high return on your investment. In some cases, unfortunately, the promise is more hype than hope and you can quickly lose your entire investment.

To invest in penny stocks, you should remember that if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. However, does that mean you should stay away from penny stocks? Not necessarily. Fortunately, there are many penny stocks to choose from so no one single candidate should be too good to pass on.

If you limit your exposure to penny stocks, apply the same principles you would apply to your other investments, and have both the time and the ability to move quickly in and out of your trades, there can be the potential to make money.

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