Advertisement
Scams

Penny Stocks: Why You Should Always Stay Away

With the exception of some large foreign firms, investors should generally avoid stocks that trade over-the-counter.

Penny stocks – those stocks that trade for low prices, often with share prices of less than a dollar per share – are dangerous. Period. Indeed, with a few exceptions, investors should steer clear of these uber-cheap stocks, which typically trade over-the-counter and not on a major exchange.

Call them penny stocks, microcaps or OTC stocks; by any name, they’re bad news. Promises of quick and easy riches are easier to fall for when an investment can be made with so little money up front. An investor might think, "How risky could it be?"

Advertisement - Article continues below

Plenty. Per the Securities and Exchange Commission: “Academic studies find that OTC stocks tend to be highly illiquid; are frequent targets of alleged market manipulation; generate negative and volatile investment returns on average; and rarely grow into a large company or transition to listing on a stock exchange.”

We’ll break down what all that means below, but suffice to say, the SEC is not a fan.

Why Penny Stocks Are So Dangerous

To be clear, this is not to say that every penny stock or OTC company is a scam. The danger is that the over-the-counter market is where the scam stocks live. Think of it as a bad neighborhood. Being there can make you a mark for a con.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

For some background, the OTC market is different from exchanges like the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq, where trading is centralized. There is no one OTC exchange. Instead, the OTC connects buyers and sellers over a computer- and telephone-based system. Any stock that does not trade on the NYSE, Nasdaq or other established U.S. exchange can trade over-the-counter. These securities also are known as “unlisted stocks.”

Advertisement - Article continues below

Typically, OTC stocks tend to be highly risky microcap stocks (the shares of small companies with market capitalizations of under $300 million), which include nanocap stocks (those with market values of under $50 million).

The SEC has long warned investors about the high risks associated with such stocks. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the industry’s self-regulatory agency, likewise waves a red flag over the buying and trading of OTC securities.

That’s because companies that list on the OTC aren’t required to file periodic or audited financial reports as they must do if they are listed on a major exchange, such as the NYSE or the Nasdaq. In other words, there’s no way to know if they’re telling the truth when they claim to have sales and profits. The major exchanges also have listing requirements; OTC stocks don’t. For example, a company must have at least 400 shareholders and a market value of at least $40 million to get a listing on the New York Stock Exchange. The OTC makes no such requirements.

Advertisement - Article continues below

Put it all together, and it makes it easier for unscrupulous managers to lie about their business prospects or commit securities fraud.

Advertisement
Advertisement - Article continues below

But that’s not all. The shares that exchange hands on the OTC tend to be “illiquid,” meaning they often trade in low volumes and have a limited number of buyers and sellers. That can make it difficult or impossible for investors to buy or sell shares at the prices they want.

That lack of liquidity also makes many OTC stocks the perfect vehicle for “pump-and-dump” schemes where stock promoters lure investors to buy shares, increasing the stock price. Then, when the price gets high enough, the pumper sells his shares, causing the stock to fall and leaving investors with poor returns, or even losses. Anyone here see The Wolf of Wall Street?

To protect investors from falling for these schemes, the SEC suspended trading of more than 800 microcap stocks — more than 8% of the OTC market — between 2012 and 2015. Once a stock has been suspended from trading, it cannot be relisted unless the company provides updated financial information to prove it’s actually operational. Since that rarely happens, trading suspensions essentially render the shares useless to scam artists.

Legitimate OTCs

Be that as it may, there is one segment of the OTC market that investors need not fear.

Advertisement - Article continues below

Amidst the riff-raff, some of the biggest, most respected foreign companies in the world list their U.S. shares over-the-counter instead of on the major U.S. exchanges. Here, you’ll find shares of The Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. (IDCBY), which happens to be the biggest bank in the world. You also can buy shares of Switzerland’s Nestle (NSRGY), the largest food company in the world; China’s Tencent (TCEHY), the country’s largest internet service provider; and Japanese gaming giant Nintendo (NTDOY).

Why would major, international publicly traded companies rub shoulders with firms that issue highly speculative penny stocks?

The reason has to do with cost and convenience. For example, a foreign firm listing on the NYSE or Nasdaq must prepare two sets of audited financial statements for everything it does — one to conform with international accounting standards, and another that adheres to the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) used in the U.S. That isn’t a requirement over-the-counter.

With an OTC listing, a foreign company gains access to the vast pool of U.S. equity investors at a fraction of the cost and effort.

The bottom line is that with the exception of large, established foreign firms, OTC stocks come with too many risks. It’s not possible for the average investor to know if the company is on the up and up. And even legitimate tiny companies can fail virtually overnight. The pitfalls of trading OTC stocks just aren’t worth it.

It’s easy enough to lose money investing in stocks. Why make it easier?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Most Popular

18 Things You Can't Return to Amazon
Smart Buying

18 Things You Can't Return to Amazon

Before tossing these items into your virtual shopping cart, be sure to read Amazon's return policy first.
September 17, 2020
Election 2020: Joe Biden's Tax Plans
taxes

Election 2020: Joe Biden's Tax Plans

With the economy in trouble, tax policy takes on added importance in the 2020 presidential election. So, let's take a look at what Joe Biden has said …
September 18, 2020
7 Foreign Countries Luring Americans to Work Abroad During the Pandemic
careers

7 Foreign Countries Luring Americans to Work Abroad During the Pandemic

Work remotely – really remotely – in these appealing destinations offering special visas for American workers.
September 18, 2020

Recommended

Bonds: 10 Things You Need to Know
Investing for Income

Bonds: 10 Things You Need to Know

Bonds can be more complex than stocks, but it's not hard to become a knowledgeable fixed-income investor.
July 22, 2020
Best Bond Funds for Every Need
Investing for Income

Best Bond Funds for Every Need

In a changing market, it’s important to remember why we hold bonds in the first place.
September 15, 2020
Does a 40% Bond Allocation Make Sense in Today’s Portfolios?
retirement planning

Does a 40% Bond Allocation Make Sense in Today’s Portfolios?

For many investors, the short answer is no. Here’s why, and what you might consider instead.
September 7, 2020
Is the Stock Market Closed on Labor Day?
Markets

Is the Stock Market Closed on Labor Day?

The good news: Stock markets and bond markets alike get the day off for Labor Day. But traders don't get an early start to the weekend.
September 5, 2020