Who wouldn't want to have bought in at ground-floor prices of companies before they became big and successful? That's the hope of many penny stock investors. If you've never heard of penny stocks or are considering investing in them, here are some of the key things to think about.
What are penny stocks?
A penny stock is loosely categorized by the Securities and Exchange Commission as one that trades for less than $5 per share and usually has a relatively small market capitalization (i.e., company value).
In practice, you might come across several definitions of a penny stock. Some investors consider penny stocks to be those that trade for less than $1 and/or over the counter on the OTC Bulletin Board. You may see penny stocks referred to as micro-cap stocks at Fidelity (or as "small companies" elsewhere).
Investors who like penny stocks perceive them as having several attractive features: the low stock price, which allows investors to buy a relatively large number of shares, and the potential for quick gains." Some penny stock investors may buy tens of thousands of shares for a relatively low amount of money, hoping that the price will rise sharply over a short period of time. But there is much more to think about when it comes to penny stocks.
Prime penny stock risks
It's important to know the risks of penny stocks because of the greater potential for loss associated with these types of investments, compared with established companies that trade on larger exchanges.
In addition to the risks common to all individual stocks, a primary risk of penny stocks is the potential for a lack of reliable, readily available information. In general, penny stocks are not required to disseminate the same type or amount of information as stocks that are listed on established exchanges—like the NYSE.
Also, many penny stocks are issued by newly formed companies with little or no track record. Without enough information, you may not be able to fully evaluate the company.
Less stringent disclosure requirements can make penny stocks particularly susceptible to illegal "pump-and-dump" schemes where unscrupulous investors buy the stock, actively promote only its virtues (e.g., "pump it up"), and then, if the stock price appreciates, sell it (e.g., "dump") at an artificially inflated price. Because they are often small in size, penny stock companies do not receive the same level of media and analyst coverage as larger, public companies, so it can be difficult for investors to determine the validity of claims made by pump-and-dump schemers. Unfortunately, those who bought the stock at the high end could be left high and dry.
Additionally, penny stocks can have low liquidity. Many penny stocks are thinly traded. When buying or selling a stock that has low trading volume, investors may not be able to do so at their desired price or time, and that can be costly. Low liquidity is a contributing factor to potentially high bid-ask spreads for penny stocks. This means that, relative to most stocks traded on the Nasdaq or the NYSE, the cost of trading these stocks is typically higher.
The lowdown on penny stocks
Of course, there is the potential to make money investing in penny stocks. However, penny stock investors are taking on a dramatic increase in potential price volatility and risk; there is an even stronger chance that investing in penny stocks could result in losing part or all of your investment. The bottom line is this: Investing in penny stocks entails significantly more risk compared with investing in established companies.