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I was a skeptic toward McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) for some time. MCD stock took off in late 2015, not long after CEO Steve Easterbrook took over. MCD bulls pointed to strong same-restaurant sales numbers. But I argued through 2016 that the seeming improvement under Easterbrook was coming from easy year-prior comparisons, not necessarily a massive improvement in the business.
Meanwhile, McDonald's own aggressive efforts to "refranchise" company-owned restaurants were praised by the market because they would improve operating margin percentage - and lessen McDonald's capital requirements. But that decision also suggested a key problem: McDonald's itself seemed to argue that owning a McDonald's restaurant wasn't necessarily a great business.
That skepticism seemed prescient for a few months. But around the time of the U.S. presidential election, MCD stock took off. It would gain about 60% through late January. An impressive 2017 - global comparable sales rose 5.3% - assuaged many of the concerns held by bears like myself.
Since then, however, MCD stock has weakened. The stock now is about 10% off those highs and down 7% so far this year. Concerns are starting to mount again, and several key questions loom.
How Much Turnaround Is Left?
McDonald's has made aggressive changes since Easterbrook took over in March 2015. Notably, food quality has been improved. Margarine was replaced with real butter. The company is moving to cage-free eggs . Quarter Pounders now are made with fresh beef (and, from personal experience, taste better).
With much fanfare, the company has rolled out all-day breakfast. Stores (both company- and franchise-owned) are being remodeled. Self-ordering kiosks are on the way in the U.S.
Easterbrook has argued that this is a better McDonald's, and he's right. And the improvements have been reflected in strengthening same-restaurant sales. Global comps were -1% in 2014, before improving to 1.5%, 3.8% and 5.3% the next three years.
But how much change really is left at this point? And is some of the change too much? McDonald's already is seeing drive-thru times rise . Fresh Quarter Pounders take longer. All-day breakfast expanded the menu, and so have other products.
Hedgeye analyst Howard Penney, who has a solid track record covering MCD, has cited increased complexity as a potential " silent killer " for MCD stock. It's fair to wonder how much McDonald's really can improve - and even if it's gone too far.
Who's on the Other Side of the Refranchising Deals?
McDonald's refranchising strategy makes some sense. Moving to a royalty model means the company gets paid on revenue, not profits. As Dana Blankenhorn argued in April, it allows Easterbrook and other executives to focus on strategy, not tactics . And closer-to-the-ground franchisees are more nimble, and more invested, in dealing with customer concerns and desires.
Fewer company-owned restaurants mean lower capital needs - and more dividend increases and share repurchases. And they insulate McDonald's from wage pressure and food inflation. There's a reason the market has bid up franchisors like Domino's Pizza (NYSE: DPZ ) and YUM! (NYSE: YUM ). Investors like this model.
But the question is (as I've written relative to YUM ): Who's on the other side of the deal? In Asia, McDonald's has made large deals with major operators. Domestic refranchising has been more piecemeal.
In both cases, however, the question is whether those franchisees will be able to deal with those inflationary pressures McDonald's is trying to escape. Will they cut their own costs and potentially impact the McDonald's brand? Will they rebel at some point if profit margins continue to compress?
In addition, the tailwind is going to fade. McDonald's closed 2017 with 92% of its restaurants franchised, not far from a 95% target. That move (from 81% three years ago) has brought in a lot of cash in upfront payments and helped earnings and margins as well. Without that tailwind, can MCD still grow earnings in double digits as it has of late?
Is MCD Stock Attractive Long-Term?
MCD stock now trades at a reasonable 19x+ forward EPS. Clearly, investors anticipate some near-term pressure. Whether it's lower refranchising benefits or higher near-term spend in renovations, the market is pricing in a deceleration in growth.
But the more interesting question here is the long-term one. Can McDonald's be a growth business in this day and age? Like key supplier Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ), consumers are trying to get away from McDonald's.
The company can - and does - offer healthy alternatives. But the core of the business is burgers, fries and soda. None of these three categories seem particularly attractive long-term at the moment. (To be fair, McDonald's French fry supplier, Lamb Weston Holdings (NYSE: LW ), is performing admirably worldwide.)
In the U.S., in particular, I see pressure continuing for McDonald's. Cumulative traffic over the last few years is negative, for instance. Internationally, there's perhaps more room to run. That's already the case as the U.S. business has been probably the weakest region over the past few quarters.
But it's going to be a different model for McDonald's relatively soon. The drivers of the 62% gains under Easterbrook's leadership are fading. Refranchising is almost done. Food and menu changes are largely complete. Expansion in the U.S. is near a ceiling. Limits in Asia and Europe will be tested soon.
Going forward, McDonald's is going to be dependent on worldwide revenue growth. And that growth will come from grinding higher. The era of big changes is ending.
If an investor believes that McDonald's can grow sales consistently year after year without that help, 19x EPS is a good multiple. If this looks like a dinosaur facing competition and consumer changes, it isn't. Place your bets accordingly.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.
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