Trading below cash takes place when the market capitalization of a company is lower than its cash holdings net of liabilities. It is a term often used in the investment industry. Such a situation usually happens to companies with uncertain or pessimistic outlooks.
Trading below cash takes place when the market capitalization of a company is lower than its cash holdings net of liabilities.
When a stock is trading below cash, it indicates that the market is pessimistic with the company’s business outlook and values the stock less as a going concern compared to liquidation.
It is rare to see stocks trading below cash in a bull market, but it happens more commonly in a bear market or industries with high cash burn rates and uncertain returns (e.g., IT and biotechnology).
Understanding Trading Below Cash
The market value of a company’s equity does not match its book value most of the time. The market value is more volatile, impacted by market sentiment and analysts’ forecasts.
When a company is trading below cash, it means the company’s total share value traded in the market is lower than its holding of cash, excluding the debt, which implies a very low valuation of the company’s stock.
For example, a company holds $5 million of cash reserve and $3 million of liabilities. Its net cash holdings are $2 million ($5 million – $3 million). If the company’s stocks are traded at $40/share with 30,000 shares outstanding, the market capitalization is $1.2 million. It is lower than the net cash holding, which means that the company is trading below cash.
When Does Trading Below Cash Happen?
It is rare to see companies that are trading below cash, especially in a bull market, as investors tend to purchase shares at higher valuations with a bullish sentiment. However, in a bear market full of uncertainty and valuation drops, trading below cash occurs more commonly.
For example, the market prices of almost all the stocks dropped substantially during the global financial crisis, and more than 800 stocks were found trading below cash in October 2008 as a result. Besides the bearish sentiment, the uncertain valuation of companies’ assets and liabilities during the crisis is a driver of trading below cash.
Companies in a certain sector may be generally valued very low if the market is bearish to the entire sector. After the burst of the “Dotcom Bubble” in 2001, most of the investors forecasted dim prospects for the entire technology sector, and many stocks were trading below cash.
Another circumstance of sector-wide trading below cash is high cash burn rates. IT and biotechnology companies in their growth periods use up cash quickly, and the return is highly uncertain. If the market considers that a company’s cash balance will only be able to support its operation for a very short term, the company might be trading below cash.
When a company is trading below cash, it implies that the company’s market capitalization is much lower than its book value of equity, which is the total asset value (including cash as well as other current and long-term assets) minus the liabilities.
With a substantially low valuation, such a stock may be a good opportunity for value investing. Value investors seek high-quality securities that are undervalued based on fundamental analysis. When a stock is trading below its net cash holdings, it indicates that the market is pessimistic and values the stock less as a going concern compared to liquidation.
However, if a value investor considers that the stock is of high quality and with an intrinsic value that is above its current market value, the investor will buy at the low price and hold until the market value returns to the intrinsic value level.
Trading Below Cash and Value Trap
The risk that is particularly important to value investing is known as a “value trap.” It happens when a stock is trading at a low price and gives a misleading buying opportunity, as the price remains low for an extended period.
A stock trading below cash may be a real value stock, especially when the company is in a turnaround stage or is developing new technology with a potentially positive but highly uncertain business outlook.
However, it is also possible that this stock is a value trap. The company may fail to raise sufficient capital to support its operation and development before it runs out of cash, or it holds a substantial amount of liability that is still unrecognized on its balance sheet.
Investors should be careful with stocks trading below cash to identify whether it is a real value investment opportunity or a value trap.
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