Noodles & Company IPO Doubles in Price, Already Overvalued After One Day

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The IPO market has certainly warmed up in 2013, but fast casual restaurant chain Noodles and Company (NDLS) has taken it to the next level with a more than 100% first-day gain. We haven’t seen that in a really long time.

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So should investors jump in? Noodles and Company currently has about 340 units, has been growing at 15% annually recently (at least 10%+ each of the last ten years) and sees a potential market at 2,500 units over the next 15-20 years. In addition, the company earns a 20% unit-level cash flow margin, at the high end of its peer group.

The problem for investors though is not the growth story, it’s the price. After doubling on its first day of trading, NDLS fetches a $1.1 billion market value on about 33 million fully diluted shares. That is over 30 times the company’s 2012 EBITDA of $37 million, a ridiculous price! Even Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), the most expensive dining stock around, trades at less than 20 times EBITDA.

The bottom line for me is that the Noodles and Company IPO has been very successful, but I would not touch the stock after it has doubled from $18 to $36 on the first day of trading. Chipotle is too expensive for my taste as well, but if you are looking for a very profitable casual dining stock with lots of growth potential and valuation is not a crucial element for you, CMG looks to be far more attractively priced than NDLS at today’s prices.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the stocks mentioned at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.

Time To Make A Shopping List

It’s one thing to say that interest rates will eventually go up, and it’s something entirely different to see them actually start to rise. Over the last couple of weeks the stock and bond markets have been spooked as the benchmark 10-year treasury has seen its yield spike. Since May 1st, the 10-year yield is up 100 basis points, from 1.6% to 2.6%. In percentage terms, that is a huge move, which is why the markets have been rattled.

It is also a fairly uncommon situation to find the stock and bond markets falling at the same time, as equity outflows typically are redirected into bonds as a safe haven. However, the rise in stocks in recent memory has largely been helped by falling bond yields (which make equities more attractive on a relative basis), so it makes sense that when bonds start to sell-off, causing rates to rise, that it would also cause a retracement in recent equity gains. So, we have bonds and stocks dropping simultaneously, and in many cases, bonds actually falling more than stocks, which hardly ever happens.

So what do we do as long-term investors? First, let’s keep things in perspective. Rather than simply focus on your stock and bond returns in May and June, consider them in the context of the last several years. While we are finally having a market correction, it should have been expected (though the exact timing is always hard to gauge). Healthy markets need to pull back every once in a while to avoid overheating. This time is no different. In fact, it had been a record number of trading days since we last had a 5% correction, so we should not fret too much at the market’s recent action.

With yield-sensitive securities leading the way down, should we throw in the towel and pronounce income-investing and the dividend-paying stock bull market dead? I would not be so quick to judge. Does a stock yielding 4% or 5% look a bit less attractive if bonds yield 2-3% instead of 1-2%? Sure. Does that mean the merits of owning high-yielding stocks have simply vanished? Hardly. Many MLPs and REITs are seeing their yields jump to 6-7% again. Even if interest rates rose another percentage point, those securities will remain attractive in the big picture.

I would suggest making a shopping list of your favorite stocks and bonds. At a certain price they become very attractive and are likely ripe for purchase during this correction. Many reached fair value, or even surpassed it a bit, thanks to interest rates hitting record lows. That was bound to stop at some point, and now the market is re-calibrating its expectations that rates will not stay ultra-low forever. We may have already known that, but markets don’t typically react until the move higher begins. And investors can expect that market prices will adjust to even higher rates ahead of time, since the financial markets are discounting mechanisms. In fact, we are likely seeing that process play out right now.

Gold: It’s Just Yellow Metal

Henry Blodget said it perfectly in an article published on Thursday (“Gold Prices Collapse As Everyone Remembers It’s Just Yellow Metal”). Now that the financial crisis is over and the U.S. economy is normalizing (albeit slowly), gold is no longer an asset class that makes much sense to many who have loved it in the recent past. Gold has no inherent intrinsic value, so buyers are merely hoping that others will buy it from them at a later date for more than they initially paid. There is no claim on any assets, which could increase in value over time (unlike a share of stock which represents a piece of ownership in a money-making corporation). Some people say gold is a currency, and yet you cannot deposit it into your checking account or use it to buy goods at your local store.

In fact, the recent strength in the U.S. stock market, coupled with severe weakness in gold prices, has resulted in stocks now having beaten gold since 2009. It took some time, but fundamentals do matter again. See the chart below:

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Biglari Stake Pushes Cracker Barrel Management Into A Corner

Shares of restaurant operator Cracker Barrel Old Country Store (CBRL) are jumping $4 today to new all-time highs on the heels of a strong quarterly earnings report and news that it will raise its dividend by 50% to $3.00 per year, giving the $93 stock a yield of over 3%. While I do not own CBRL shares directly, Biglari Holdings (BH) is a large position in the client accounts I manage and that company owns a 20% stake in Cracker Barrel, after having started buying the stock in the 40’s two years ago. That stake is now worth over $440 million and represents a majority of BH’s current equity market value of $585 million.

I have written about Biglari Holdings quite a bit previously, so I suggest searching this blog for those articles if you would like to learn more on that front. What I find interesting today is that Biglari has really cornered Cracker Barrel into a position where Biglari and its shareholders can win on multiple fronts with its CBRL investment. The Biglari-Cracker Barrel relationship is a dicey one, which is contrary to many situations where a company and its largest shareholder communicate amicably on a fairly regular basis. As a 20% holder, Biglari has agitated for board seats for two years now, and has been rejected by both management and CBRL shareholders both times. Biglari’s main beef was with how CBRL was being managed, and as a large holder he wanted to sit down with the senior management team and work together to improve capital allocation and get the stock price higher.

Interestingly, Cracker Barrel has been quick to dismiss Biglari’s ideas publicly, only to later implement them and try and take credit. Many of those changes have contributed to the doubling of CBRL’s share price over the last two years. Now that CBRL is generating excess free cash flow at a very healthy clip, they are faced with the decision of how to allocate that capital. Previously CBRL has repurchased shares, but now that Biglari Holdings owns 20% of the company (the maximum amount it can own due to a poison pill put into place by Cracker Barrel management) any share repurchases would increase Biglari’s stake in the company without any additional cash investment. If that stake were to rise, Biglari’s odds of gaining seats on the company’s board of directors would also increase, and given the tense relationship, CBRL has no incentive to buy back stock right now.

So that leaves the issue of the company’s dividend. When Biglari Holdings bought its first shares of Cracker Barrel in 2011, CBRL’s quarterly dividend was 22 cents per share. Since then they have raised it on four separate occasions, more than tripling the payout to the current 75 cents per quarter rate. Cracker Barrel likely thought doing so would make Biglari happier and might cause him to be less vocal. However, that has not happened and there is every indication that he will continue to seek board seats in the future.

From Biglari’s perspective, he really could not be in a better position. If Cracker Barrel hoards its cash or spends it unwisely (unprofitable unit expansion has been a core tenet of Biglari’s critique), he will likely get more shareholders on his side when it comes time to re-elect the company’s directors. If CBRL decides to buy back shares with its free cash flow (something Biglari has suggested they do), his ownership percentage will increase and help him in that quest.

Not surprisingly, Cracker Barrel has opted for the dividend increase approach, as it eases shareholder concerns generally and does nothing to help Biglari get on the company’s board. However, it serves to funnel cash right into Biglari Holdings’ bank account. So shareholders of Biglari Holdings are going to win either way; they benefit from the torrid pace of the stock price’s ascent, and they are getting ever-rising dividend payments every quarter, with which Biglari can make additional investments. On BH’s 4+ million share stake, that equates to over $12 million a year in dividends, which comes to about 2% of Biglari Holdings’ market value.

I’ll make one final observation as it relates to the merits of Biglari Holdings as an investment, since I am playing this scenario indirectly through BH stock. Before BH even purchased its first share of CBRL, its stock was trading at $400 per share. Now, two years later with that stake in CBRL worth over $440 million (and paying $12 million out annually), BH shares trade for $405. The market has not yet fully appreciated what Biglari has been building here, but I think it will just be a matter of time.

Full Disclosure: Long BH shares at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time