Even With New E. Coli Cases, Chipotle Shares Not Yet Cheap

Shares of casual dining chain Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) have been hammered since reports of E. coli outbreaks across the country have caused a material decrease in customer traffic during the fourth quarter (double-digit same store sales declines have been confirmed by the company). After peaking at more than $750 in August, the stock now fetches a little more than $500 per share.

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This is definitely the kind of short-term sell-off I pay close attention to as a long-term, contrarian investor. History tells us that restaurants dealing with outbreaks like this see a drop in customer visits but eventually recover. Within a year or two, after the headline news has abated and the health issues rectified, people revert to their previous dining habits. With a perennially high valuation stock like Chipotle, a negative event like this can often be one of the only ways investors can get a bargain for their portfolio. So am I loading up on the shares at the current ~$520 price?

Not yet. Simply put, I don’t find the price extremely compelling, even after a 30% decline. Before the E. coli cases came about, Chipotle was having quite the year from a financial standpoint. Revenue was tracking at about $4.7 billion for 2015 (+15%) with operating cash flow approaching $800 million (about as high a profit margin as you will find in the industry). I estimate maintenance capital expenses for the company’s existing restaurants to be quite low (less than $100 million annually), so CMG’s existing units were on pace to produce free cash flow of $700 million per year before the outbreaks.

The problem for value investors like myself is that the stock’s valuation has gone from insanely high ($24 billion at the peak, or about 34 times free cash flow) to a lower level today (23.5 times free cash flow) which is still fairly high. Despite CMG’s growth outlook, I would have valued CMG at 20 times free cash flow before the recent drop (~$450 per share). Now that customer traffic has dropped more than 10% and will likely take at least a year to recover, I would want a discounted price to reflect the time it will take for the company to fix the problem once and for all and see visitors return to their normal habits. A 25% discount would mean a stock price in the 330’s. Accordingly, I do not think I will be bottom-fishing in CMG shares anytime soon. There are just too many other restaurant chains that I think are meaningfully more attractive from a valuation perspective.

Full Disclosure: No position at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

4 thoughts on “Even With New E. Coli Cases, Chipotle Shares Not Yet Cheap”

  1. HI there,

    Any insights into how many restaurants CMG can open before they reach market saturation in the US? Many thanks!

    Cheers,
    Henry

    1. I am not aware of the company disclosing a particular number, unlike many other chains. Given that their pace has not yet slowed (~200 new units annually) and their AUV has not fallen off either (ex e coli impact), I don’t see why they would not reach 3,000 within 5 years. The only reason one might not assume they can get to 4,000 or 5,000 without seeing unit economics take a hit is because there are so many casual dining chains that have very ambitious growth targets longer term. Population growth in the U.S. is pretty low so there will be a restaurant overbuild at some point.

  2. Totally agree with you on this one. In fact I can’t see a decent valued company in this industry right now. Not even MCD is cheap anymore!

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