Convertible Preferred Stock for Beginners

Understanding What Makes Convertible Preferred Stock Different

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In "What Is Preferred Stock?" and The Many Flavors of Preferred Stock, you learned that preferred stock is a special type of stock that is sometimes sold to investors. Often, preferred stocks feature higher dividends but they are limited in the total profit they can earn or the dividends they can collect, making them fall somewhere between regular common stocks and bonds. Some companies have multiple "classes" of preferred stock, each of which has its own characteristics, voting rights, dividend rights, etc.

There are several situations and scenarios you may run into if you decide to invest in these much less noticed, and discussed, securities, but one of the most popular and common variations of preferred stock is known as convertible preferred stock.

Preferred Stocks Sometimes Have Special Conversion Rights

It might seem confusing to new investors, but it is vital that you understand that some preferred stocks might have conversion rights. When this happens, people on Wall Street refer to these securities as convertible preferred stocks or convertible preferreds. That means that, at some point in the future, either at your option, at the option of the Board of Directors, or at a predetermined date, the company might convert all of your preferred stock into shares of common stock. Correctly understanding the terms and conditions of that conversion can mean the difference between big profits or horrendous losses.

An Example of Convertible Preferred Stock

Imagine you read through the terms and conditions of a particular security and bought 100 shares of convertible preferred stock in XYZ bank. The preferred stock cost you $500 per share, so your total investment is $50,000. This particular class of preferred stock pays $25 per share each year in dividends, which works out to a 5% dividend yield.

It also has a special conversion privilege, which says that you can convert each share of preferred stock into 50 shares of common stock.

Think about that for a moment. Your preferred stock of $500 per share is paying you $25 per year in dividends, or a 5% yield, but you also get a lottery ticket that allows you to trade in your preferred stock and exchange it for 50 shares of common stock. That means your "cost" of converting to common is $10 per share ($500 preferred stock divided by 50 shares of common stock = $10 cost per share in the event of conversion).

If the common stock is less than $10, your convertible preferred rights aren't worth much. If the common stock is $10 or more, your conversion rights can be an absolute goldmine. An illustration might help.

If you wake up and the common stock is $7, you would not want to use your conversion privilege that allowed you to exchange your 100 shares of preferred stock for 5,000 shares of common stock (since each share of preferred can be exchanged for 50 shares of common, or 100 preferred shares x 50 common shares = 5,000 common shares). That would leave you with 5,000 shares of common stock at $7 per share, or $35,000. That is a loss of $15,000 on your original investment of preferred stock at $50,000, plus you wouldn't receive your preferred stock dividend, anymore!

Imagine XYZ Bank made an announcement and the common stock skyrockets to $30 per share. You would take your 100 shares of preferred stock and convert them into 50 shares of common stock each for a total of 5,000 shares of common stock. You could immediately sell your common stock for $150,000 because $30 per share market price x 5,000 shares = $150,000. Your cost was only $50,000 when you bought the convertible preferred, so you tripled your money, and you collected dividends up until the time you exercised the conversion rights. Now you can see why understanding the terms of your convertible preferred shares is so important.