What Are Comps in Investing?

Comps in Investing Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

Couple looking at paperwork at home
•••

Katleho Seisa / Getty Images

Comps, or comparable company multiples, are a commonly used way to value stocks. To use comps, you identify the most similar companies and apply their average multiple to the subject company.

Comps are used in everything from real estate purchasing to used equipment valuation to stock analysis. We’ll focus here on stock analysis and show you how to value a stock using comps. 

Definition and Examples of Comps

Comps, or comparable companies, are used to find a valuation multiple for stock analysis. You find the most similar competitors, calculate the average valuation multiple, and apply it to the stock you’re analyzing. Comps analysis using multiples is also known as relative valuation.  

There are two common ways to use comps: precedent transactions and public stocks. Public comps use the current trading price of similar companies. Precedent transactions, or private comps, are recent merger or acquisition prices for similar companies. 

Public comps are used by investors to analyze stocks to purchase. Precedent transactions are more commonly used in investment banking scenarios in which one company is pitching the acquisition of another. 

For either type, it is important to find good comparables and use the correct multiple. Factors like debt load, size, and growth profile can all impact valuation. Additionally, companies in industries that are asset-heavy shouldn’t be valued in the same way as companies that are capital-light and fast-growing. 

How Comps Work

The financial data and information services, like Bloomberg or FactSet, that Wall Street professionals use offer up comps in an easily digestible way. You simply type in the ticker symbol of a company and get your valuation. But for individual investors, you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars for these services in order to do comps. You can find all the info you need from basic financial websites such as Yahoo! Finance or Morningstar. 

Let’s go over how to do it using Home Depot (HD) as an example. 

Yahoo’s home page lists five competitors of Home Depot: Lowe’s, Lumber Liquidators, GrowGeneration, Floor & Decor Holdings, and Leslie’s. Let’s gather some basic information about each of the companies and then decide how to do a comps analysis. 

Company   P/E  D/E  Profit Margin  Growth Market Cap
Lowe's 21.02  neg   7.41%  6.70%  $141B
Floor & Decor 46.66   116   9.33%  159%  $13.11B
Leslie's 37.97  neg   9.50%  65%  $4.7B
Lumber Liquidators    8.36   51   5.84%  354%  $570M
GrowGeneration  95.03   9   5.32%  161%  $1.81B
Home Depot  23.33  2,047   10.55%  11%  $350B

We will use price/earnings ratio (P/E) as the valuation multiple for our analysis. Debt/equity ratio (D/E) was used to evaluate how much debt each company has (the higher the number, the more debt there is; generally, any number over two means the company has heavy debt). Profit margin is used to evaluate how profitable the companies are. Growth is earnings growth for the last quarter and market cap (the total value of a company measured by the stock price times the number of shares issued) was used to evaluate size. 

Before you start your analysis, you already may be leaning toward certain comparables. Most people know that Home Depot and Lowe’s are the two big players in this industry—that is proven true by these comps. Lowe’s and Home Depot both have market capitalizations in the hundreds of billions of dollars and the next closest among the other four is just $13 billion. 

The four smaller companies also have far higher growth rates and, unsurprisingly, higher P/E multiples (except for LumberLiquidators). 

At this point, it makes sense to throw out the four smaller competitors. You could use Home Depot’s financial filings, recent news, other research, or even the industry code to find additional competitors if you need to, but the comparable analysis is rarely perfect. 

Sometimes there are only a few good direct comps, and many times there aren’t any. If you can find enough good comps, you can adjust the average multiple to make up for the problems with the comp.

Normally, we would apply the average multiple of the comps to Home Depot to calculate a value. In this case, there is only one good comp—Lowe’s—and Home Depot’s multiple of 23.33 is close enough to Lowe’s multiple of 21.02 that the difference is immaterial. Especially because Home Depot has higher margins and growth and less debt. 

Let’s look at one more example to go through the process using Wells Fargo (WF): 

 Company  P/B  Profit Margin  Growth  Market Cap
 JPMorgan Chase  1.87  37.18%  155%  $474B
 Citigroup  0.78  30.12%  487%  $143B
 Bank of America  1.36  31.84%  161%  $344B
 US Bank  1.76  32.51%  188%   $83B
AVERAGE  1.44  32.91%  248%  $261B
Wells Fargo  1.06  22.12%   N/A  $180B
Current Price     $44.33  
Book Value Per Share     $41.70    
Implied Price     $60.00    

Debt/equity was removed this time around because it is not as useful for banks, which have regulated balance sheets. Also, note that the growth numbers are extremely high because they use 2020 pandemic earnings numbers. Considering the fact that Wells Fargo doesn’t have a number because it lost money in the last quarter, we will omit growth from our analysis. 

Wells Fargo’s price/book multiple is the second-lowest among the five banks. This is because of its profit margin, which is nearly eight percentage points lower than the next-lowest competitor. Wells Fargo’s inferior profit margin should factor into your analysis.  

If you just looked at the multiples, you would immediately think Wells Fargo was undervalued. By putting the multiple into context, however, you can make a decision based on whether Wells Fargo’s profit margin will be able to rise to the same level as the other big banks on the list. If it does, we can calculate a potential price target by multiplying Wells Fargo’s book value per share of $41.70 by the average multiple of 1.44. Wells Fargo’s reaching $60 per share would mean a gain of 35% from its current price of $44.33.  

Key Takeaways

  • Comps are used to value a stock based on what comparable businesses trade for on a stock exchange or recently sold for in a merger or acquisition. 
  • Comps analysis is also called relative valuation. 
  • It’s important to put comparable multiples into context by weighing other financial ratios as well.