What Happens if a Company’s Stock Falls to Zero?

Here’s how you’ll be affected if a stock becomes worthless – and how to profit

Vikram Barhat 9 May, 2023 | 9:50AM
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Jenga blocks after tumbling

The stock market can be a wild ride, and no one knows this better than investors of electric vehicle maker Nikola Corp (NKLA). The company's stock, once valued at $67 per share, has plummeted in value and now hovers below $1.

The question on the minds of many investors now is: what happens when a company's stock falls to zero?

It's happened before. Enron and Lehman Brothers stocks fell precipitously to or close to zero before being delisted by their exchanges. More recently, it happened to Silicon Valley Bank's parent SVB Financial Group and Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY), whose stock fell to 71 cents and 28 cents, respectively, before trading was suspended.

Here is a guide to why stocks may plummet to zero and what it means for investors.

When a Stock Hits Rock-Bottom

If a stock falls to or close to zero, it means that the company is effectively bankrupt and has no value to shareholders.

"A company typically goes to zero when it becomes bankrupt or is technically insolvent, such as Silicon Valley Bank," says Darren Sissons, partner and portfolio manager at Campbell, Lee & Ross.

On rare occasions, a stock’s value could fall to zero due to regulatory freezes imposed on a company for illegal activity or regulation breaches.

A company’s stock may lose all its value for a variety of other reasons, such as poor management, weak financial performance, corporate fraud, or external factors such as economic downturns or industry disruption.

A publicly-traded company exhibits several signs of distress well in advance of declaring bankruptcy. Some of these signs include "over-leveraged balance sheets, erratic share price trading and lots of insider sales, that is, management getting out," says Sissons.

Significant and persistent declines in profit and revenue, negative auditor reports and debt rating agency comments are also key red flags, "although, on these latter two groups, there are many instances in which they failed to capture the obvious data," he warns.

The Deep Impact of Bankruptcy

For investors who own shares in a company that goes bankrupt, the equity is wiped out, rendering their investment worthless.

Big stock exchanges set limits on how low a stock can go before they take it off their platform. Typically, if a stock's price stays under one dollar for a certain number of days, the exchange will remove it from their listings. Once delisted, it becomes an over-the-counter (OTC) stock that speculators can buy and sell on alternative exchanges.

"Once the failing companies fall below minimum trading thresholds, market makers do not make a market in the name," says Sissons, adding that "you may see a name kicked from the big TSX board to the Venture Exchange."

When a company goes bankrupt, debt investors switch to an "as converted" basis and essentially become owners of the company, Sissons notes.

"'As converted' basis refers to the situation where debt investors or bondholders have the option to convert their debt or bonds into equity shares of the company. This means that debt holders become equity shareholders, and “control of the firm then falls to the most senior debt instrument," says Sissons.

Making Profits from Sinking Stocks

Is there an opportunity for investors to make money when a stock price goes south? According to Sissons: yes. "You can buy the bonds, which are likely trading at a discount," he says. "If the firm is capitalised as 50% debt and 50% equity, then the value of equity drops to zero, so the [holders of] 50% debt control the firm and convert [the debt] to equity. The company then becomes debt-free in effect."

Alternatively, investors can buy puts or short the company.

Can a stock ever rebound after it has gone to zero? Yes, but unlikely. A more typical example is the corporate shell gets zeroed and a new company is vended [sold] into the shell (the legal entity that remains after the bankruptcy) and the company trades again.

"Some upside can be re-captured at that time", says Sissons, but adds, "on balance, the equity investment is typically completely lost."

A Final Word for Investors

Are companies in some sectors more susceptible to going bankrupt than others? "In theory," Sissons says, "any company can become bankrupt, but in practice, it's typically mature companies that have too much debt."

He points out that "high-growth tech companies that run continuous net losses and then run out of money are also at risk," citing Canadian telecom giant Nortel, which collapsed and went bankrupt in 2009.

If for some reason you end up owning stock in a company that is not on firm footing, it is critically important to understand the risk going in and ensure the investment still remains appropriate for your strategy.

Sissons' wisdom is straightforward: "do not buy companies with bad balance sheets. Review the auditor and debt rating comments and read research." You can read analyst notes too.

There is much to monitor, though, and it’s a time-intensive process. "If that work is burdensome then employ a professional to assist with wealth planning," he asserts.

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The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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Securities Mentioned in Article

Security NamePriceChange (%)Morningstar
Rating
Nikola Corp0.74 USD-3.15

About Author

Vikram Barhat  is a Toronto-based financial writer specialising in investing, stock markets, personal finance and other areas of the financial services industry. 

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