Stock research is an essential tool for every successful investor. Some investors are well-versed in reading a company’s balance sheet or have relevant experience with a certain sector. However, many do not. That’s where stock ratings can be helpful.
In this article, we’ll explain the ratings process including what each rating means. We’ll also explain how analysts arrive at their rating and why analysts may change their ratings.
Why Stock Ratings Matter
Stock ratings matter because they convey to investors the reasoned and objective analysis of experienced professionals. Analysts and brokerage firms have access to corporate management. This gives them the ability to see things that won’t be apparent in the headline numbers of an earnings report. Analysts can give individual investors insight into competitive advantages and/or pitfalls that may not be obvious to individual investors.
Analysts spend significant time and effort to provide accurate stock ratings. If an analyst misses badly on a stock rating, it can affect their reputation in the industry as well as the commissions they earn for such pieces of information. With that said, no analyst ever gets it 100% right.
Understanding the Types of Stock Ratings
An analyst rating is an opinion about a stock’s price movement over time (usually about 12 months). It is not indicative of an analyst’s opinion on a specific trading day. Here are the most common ratings and what they mean:
Buy Rating: This is a bullish signal expressing an analyst’s opinion that a stock’s price is likely to increase and therefore is worth buying at its current market price. Some analysts will use the phrase ‘strong buy’ to indicate a high confidence that a stock will move higher. Generally speaking, analysts who give a strong buy rating will have a higher price target than the consensus price.
Sell Rating: This is a bearish signal expressing an analyst’s opinion that a stock’s price is likely to decline and therefore should be sold at its current market price. When an analyst issues a “strong sell” rating they are telling investors that they should liquidate their position in the security as it may fall much further or may be in danger of being delisted.
Hold Rating: This is a neutral signal expressing an analyst’s opinion that a stock’s price is likely to perform at the same pace as other stocks in its sector. A hold rating is particularly significant for dividend stocks because a reliable, and/or growing, dividend will help increase an investor’s total return whether the stock increases in price or not.
Underperform Rating: An underperform rating is a bearish signal that says a stock is likely to perform worse than the overall market. Analysts may also use the term underweight. Investors can think of this as between a sell and a hold. While it may not be time to sell the stock, the analyst believes the stock is losing upside momentum.
Outperform Stock Rating: An outperform rating is a bullish signal that a stock is likely to perform much better than the overall market. Analysts may also use the term overweight. Investors can think of this as between a neutral and a buy. Investors may not want to buy the stock, but the analyst believes that an uptrend is gaining momentum.
Stock Ratings Tend to Change During Earnings Season
Every quarter, publicly traded companies deliver earnings reports. These are progress reports for investors. Companies report the prior quarter’s revenue and profit or loss. In some cases, they will issue future guidance for revenue and earnings. And just as importantly, these earnings reports give companies a chance to review their company’s strategy and objectives.
This is also a time when company management answers questions from market analysts. These analysts, in turn, issue ratings for the stock. Analysts take the information they hear from the company’s management team and they compare that to what is being reported on the company’s balance sheet. At that point, they issue a rating for the stock based on where they expect the price to move in the next 12 months.
Do Stock Ratings Change?
Absolutely they do. Publicly traded companies are affected by what’s going on in the broader economy. For example, inflation can lead to higher producer costs. Ideally a company could pass along these costs to consumers to protect their profit margins. However, this isn’t always possible. Geopolitical events can impact companies that have an international supply chain. And sometimes, companies just miss on revenue and earnings forecasts for no discernible reason.
In any of these cases, analysts are challenged to reconsidering their rating. In some cases, an analyst may raise or lower their price target without changing their rating.
Some Final Thoughts on Stock Ratings
No investor should blindly accept the opinion of any analyst. There are outside factors that can weigh on the short term revenue and earnings. Additionally, stock ratings are, at least in part, subjective. That’s why it’s not uncommon for a stock to receive contrary outlooks from different analysts.
However, they do provide a useful starting point for investors who may not be an expert in corporate finance. And stock ratings provide a general sense of the sentiment of institutional investors. It’s up to every investor to decide if that sentiment and timeline matches their own risk tolerance and investment timeline.