McDonald's May Signal Peak Valuation in Fast Food and Casual Dining Stocks

The casual dining sector, particularly the fast food segment, may have run its major growth course. After McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE: MCD) posted a disappointing company earnings report we can only yet again consider that perhaps the easy money has been made in the casual dining sector. Many of these stocks have run up and done incredibly well since the end of the recession and now the private equity buyers have been sneaking their restaurant chains and even fine dining chains back on to the stock market.

We already showed that the McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE: MCD) earnings really lacked flavor. How can single-digit earnings and revenue growth be exciting even with an at-market multiple of about 17-times expected earnings? Maybe this is not just a growth concern. Maybe there is a concern that there are just real catalysts that want to make McDonald’s investors chase the stock up over $100 now even if there is a 3% dividend yield. The analyst community had a consensus stock target price of over $106 ahead of earnings and that may be ratcheted slightly lower. If so, then McDonald’s may not be exciting until shares get back into the low-$90s or even back into the high-$80s again.

Burger King Worldwide Inc. (NYSE: BKW) is down in sympathy with Mickey-D’s, with shares down almost 2% at $19.34 against a 52-week range of $12.91 to $21.73. The problem here is that Thomson Reuters already had a consensus target price of $19.29. Wellington, Tiger, and Pershing Square still have a lot of influence here along with 3G Special Situations. If the stock is above the analyst consensus target and if a lot of stock still remains to be sold, why does this stock need to be valued where it is now up at 24-times expected 2013 earnings with a paltry 1.3% dividend yield?

Jack in the Box Inc. (NASDAQ: JACK) is still in the mystery camp on its share performance. At $40.20, its 52-week range is $24.71 to $41.37 and the analyst consensus target price is almost $42.50. A huge run up has been seen already, and analysts have just over 5% upside, with no dividend and with a balance sheet that remains stretched. Maybe hopes of an unlocking of the Qdoba chain value is the driver here, but its rising share price looks pricey enough as is at 24-times expected 2013 earnings estimates.

Yum! Brands Inc. (NYSE: YUM) is the number-two chain behind McDonald’s and its domestic store sales have helped it keep its value up while it is facing serious challenges in the key Chinese market which are only recently posting a recovery. Yum!’s stock price just never seemed to get beaten down enough for us to have any interest and the drop of only 0.7% to $71.57 compares to a 52-week range of $58.68 to $74.75. The 1.9% dividend yield is so-so for food chains but 23-times expected earnings just feels too steep for any value investor or bargain hunter to chase.

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE: CMG) remains a “growth versus value” investor wild card, particularly when you consider that it once used to be a part of the McDonald’s empire. Its stock is only down 1.5% at $402.90 with a 52-week range of $233.82 to $410.12. The company pays no dividend as it is still financing growth in new chains as it rapidly tries to catch its earnings and sales growth up to a valuation of 38-times expected earnings. This chain has seen massive growth and shareholders have enjoyed a somewhat wild ride here. That doesn’t mean that investors are going to chase it endlessly with an earnings multiple twice that of the broad stock market.

Damage seems to have been done in the casual dining and fast food segment if you consider these valuations. The real issue is not even that earnings growth may be limited. Value investors are simply going to have a hard time saying that McDonald’s is cheap at 17-times earnings just because its peers are trading at over 20-times expected earnings. Fast food is supposed to be a somewhat defensive stock sector. How much are you willing to pay up over a fair-market earnings valuation for that defensive posturing?

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