Healthcare Stocks Look Poised To Rebound In 2017

Please excuse the technical difficulties this site has experienced lately. After some adjustments everything should be back up and running smoothly. As such, I am hopeful that posting frequency will pick up a bit this year.

Perhaps one of the more surprising stock market trends post-election has been the relative inability for the healthcare sector to get back on track after taking a beating during the campaign season. With government deregulation on the way, as well as a bipartisan bill having passed Congress late in 2016 that will serve to loosen the FDA drug approval process, rational minds might have expected healthcare stocks to stage a large rally, much has been the case with banking stocks (same thesis; rolling back the regulations put in place post-recession).

We have seen a bit of a pickup in recent days, but after an initial one-day surge on November 9th, healthcare stocks have been lagging generally. I fully expect that 2017 will be a much better year for the sector. Abusive drug price increases will surely still get the attention on lawmakers, but that practice should come to somewhat of a halt now that the industry has seen what can happen to the likes of Valeant (VRX).

While investors will have to temper their growth rate expectations for pharmaceutical-related companies, the fundamental demand story should remain intact longer term. The strong companies should have no trouble churning out consistent sales and strong cash flow. Doing so will prove to investors just how resilient the industry can be, and should result in more normal valuations for most players in the sector.

To give you an example of how strange some of the price action has been in these names, consider one that I have been accumulating recently, both personally and for clients: CVS Health (CVS). This leading healthcare name has seen its share price take a stunning downward turn, from over $100 to as low as $70 per share. It’s hovering around $80 currently.

CVS is not some small drug company with a few products that has grown by dramatically increasing prices. We are talking about a blue-chip franchise with leading positions in both retail drugstores and pharmacy benefit management. The historical record of shareholder value creation is impressive. From a long-term demographic perspective, CVS stands to benefit greatly from drug innovations and an aging population.

And yet somehow the stock is currently fetching just 14 times annual earnings, a whopping 30% discount to the S&P 500 index. With overall valuations in the market in the upper band of the historically normal range, CVS looks like quite a bargain, even as the sector has been a focal point for criticism. While stocks like this have hurt investor performance lately, myself included, I see little reason to think 2017 cannot be the start of a healing process for an excellent American company like CVS Health.

Trump Stock Market Rally Staring Down Formidable Opponent: Valuation

With the U.S. stock market having rallied 5% since Election Day, many investors are very enthusiastic about President-Elect Trump’s clear agenda of filling his Cabinet with wealthy business people who will be tasked with creating an optimal business environment for American companies. Slashing regulations, cutting corporate tax rates, and incentivizing profits earned overseas to be repatriated back to the U.S. will certainly put a jolt into Corporate America. Perhaps even more crucial to the recent stock market rally is the fact that infrastructure spending and corporate tax cuts are likely to be funded with additional borrowings by the federal government. As a result, we have seen a steep increase in interest rates over the last month, which has led many traders to sell bonds and reallocate that capital into stocks.

But after that asset reallocation is over, then what? Count me as skeptical that this market rally will continue for the next four years. I see two main headwinds that are likely to creep into the picture beginning in 2017; lofty legislative expectations for the Republican-controlled Congress and elevated stock market valuations.

First, there is likely to be a gap between what legislation is actually passed in 2017 and the “best-case scenario” that stocks seem to be banking on today. Dreams of a $1 trillion infrastructure spending program coupled with large personal tax cuts, as well as a reduction in the corporate tax rate from 35% all the way down to 15%, will cost a lot of money. As in trillions of dollars. Where does this money come from?

President Obama has been able to reduce the federal government’s annual budget deficit by more than 50% since he took office, but the U.S. is still spending more than half a trillion dollars more each year than it is bringing in from taxes. There are likely many Republicans who are concerned enough about our country’s finances that they would be unwilling to vote for a material increase in the budget deficit. In that scenario, $1 trillion of spend on infrastructure spending does not work. Corporate tax rates fall to 20-25% instead of 15%, and large personal tax cuts become quite small (remember George W Bush’s $300 per person tax cut in 2001?). A more subdued legislative result would limit the rush of cash into personal and corporate pockets that many are hoping for. Simply put, expectations might be too high.

Even more concerning for the stock market are current valuations. Right now the S&P 500 index trades for roughly 20.5 times estimated earnings for calendar year 2016. The average trailing 12 month price-earnings multiple over the last 50 years is 16 times. Market bulls are quick to point out that interest rates are sitting at below average levels, so stocks deserve to trade at above-average prices. That may be true, but interest rates are on the rise and over the last five years, as interest rates reached record low levels, the S&P 500 index traded between 15 and 20 times trailing earnings. As interest rates rise, stock valuation multiples should go down, not up.

This chart shows year-end price-earnings ratios for the S&P 500 index going back more than 50 years. To smooth out the downward volatility seen during recessions, I used “peak earnings” (highest ever recorded) as opposed to “current earnings” (trailing 12 months). The consensus for 2016 earnings is to get within ~3% of the profit peak, which was in 2014 before oil’s big drop.

Simply put, price-earnings ratios are likely to trend downward over the next few years. In order for stock prices to continue their march higher, corporate profits would really need to grow quickly. If legislative action on that front disappoints in 2017, the current market optimism could very well die down quickly. Normally, Trump’s election could very well have marked the beginning of a prolonged bull market in stocks, due to his desire to put business leaders in powerful positions (the underlying assumption being that these folks will be more friendly to business than any other constituency). The big headwind to that theory this time around is that during President Obama’s two terms in office, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has soared from below 8,000 to over 19,000. As a result, the old adage that “trees don’t grow to the sky” seems particularly relevant, no matter the legislative agenda.

That is not to say that markets are going to reverse course and move dramatically lower. I think a more likely outcome is that P/E ratios move from 20-21x to 16-18x and corporate profits grow at a 5-10% annual clip. In that scenario (7.5% annual profit growth and a 17x P/E), the S&P 500 index in four years would be trading around 2,475, or roughly 10% above current levels. Not a terrible outcome, but hardly robust either.

This Is How Amazon Will Become America’s Most Valuable Company

In 2014 I invested in Amazon.com (AMZN), much to the bewilderment of many of my clients. Even though the stock had fallen from more than $400 to below $300 per share, the consensus view was that the company was a money-losing unfocused endeavor that prioritized innovation over financial considerations. In many minds, there was no way to justify Amazon’s market value, so $280 per share was pretty much just as crazy as $400 per share.

Fast forward 30 months and Amazon shares trade in the mid 700’s. The company is reporting GAAP profits and still growing 20% per year. Prior skeptics missed several things, but at the core they did not account for the fact that Amazon sees no boundaries in terms of areas in which it will compete. The company was losing money in the accounting world, but in reality certain businesses were making money and those profits were being used to subsidize growth initiatives in other areas, some of which would fail and others that would succeed but not turn a profit on their own until years later.

We often hear growth investors focusing on a company’s total addressable market, or “TAM,” when trying to figure out how high a stock could go over a 5 or 10 year period when growth is more important to management than short-term profitability. Many Amazon investors try to gauge the company’s TAM by looking at the total retail market, and assuming e-commerce ultimately represents X percent of retail spending, and Amazon gets Y percent of that e-commerce market. That method of analysis would work for most companies, but not Amazon. The problem is that it implied that we know what categories will have an e-commerce component and that the e-commerce penetration of each category will remain somewhat consistent (such that we can predict what it will be).

Why is that problematic? Watch this video, unveiled today by Amazon:

You see, Amazon is not a traditional company. It is creating new businesses that don’t exist and it is re-imagining business models, like the convenience store. There is really no way to know what businesses Amazon will get into in the future. All we really know is that they are more willing than any other company on Earth to venture into something new that may or may not seem to make sense. This is why I believe within the next five years Amazon will become the most valuable U.S. company. There is nothing stopping them from growing because they never limit themselves.

The “Amazon Go” store you saw in the video (see the related Seattle Times article here) will open in 2017 in Seattle, about 10 miles from my house. I will eagerly await its arrival and share my initial experience when it opens. As for the stock, as the price warrants I will reduce my position over time (I already have sold some), but it is probably the only stock I have ever owned that I will continue to hold at least some of my shares almost no matter how high it goes. As long as I cannot predict where Amazon’s growth will take it in the future, it will be hard for me to confidently say the company is overvalued.

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

2016 Election: Thoughts The Day After

It is reasonable to expect that the financial markets will see an increase in volatility over the coming months as folks try to decipher exactly how a Trump presidency will look, feel, and sound. I thought I would share some initial thoughts, both on the election result and how U.S. policy might evolve in 2017.

  • The conventional wisdom as people digest the election results is likely to be that Trump had a unique ability to connect with a set of voters that might not have been regular voters in past cycles and were sick and tired of the political status quo (high turnout), whereas Clinton had a last name and a resume that defined that very persona (low turnout). I doubt it will get much airtime, but it turns out that only one of those scenarios played out. Below is a summary of the popular vote totals from the last four elections. I think it is quite striking and explains the result this year.popvote
  • From a business and financial market perspective, there are several issues that are likely to be addressed in 2017 now that Republicans will control the executive and legislative branches of government. They have both positive and negative aspects, which means that the exact details will be very important. Several come immediately to mind:
    • Overseas cash repatriation
    • Corporate tax reductions
    • Personal income tax reductions
    • Infrastructure spending
  • In every case, the core question will be how/if the tax cuts/spending increases are paid for
  • If not, more borrowing will increase the deficit and debt, which would exacerbate an existing problem
  • If they are paid for, it will be important to see which segment of the country takes the brunt of the cuts. We have seen in the past that cutting services for the working class to pay for lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations doesn’t work so well, so the ideal scenario would be relatively equal benefits for everyone
  • Bringing foreign cash back to the U.S. should be a no-brainer no matter your political affiliation. There is no doubt that it benefits the wealthy more than others, but it makes no sense for trillions of dollars to be idling in foreign bank accounts in perpetuity
  • Lower corporate taxes would definitely boost the stock market and it would be a very rational response. Again, the key is how they would be paid for (if at all) and whether cuts elsewhere would offset the benefits. Again, wealthier people have more assets invested in the markets, but higher stock prices help the value of retirement accounts no matter the size
  • Starting in 2017 it should be abundantly clear what the priorities of the new administration are and how they will approach legislating them. Only then will we have a sense for whether economic optimism is warranted or not.

Have We Finally Reached Restaurant Saturation?

I have been an avid long-term investor in the restaurant space for nearly two decades. I think my first food investment was Panera Bread Company (PNRA), which I was very familiar with due to my undergraduate years in St. Louis. St. Louis Bread Co was acquired by Au Bon Pain in 1993 and about five years later they decided to divest all of their other restaurant concepts in order to focus on rebranding the local favorite “Bread Co” into a dominant national chain called Panera. To this day the company’s St. Louis locations retain the original name.

So why do I favor solid investment stories in this sector? Here are some of the most important reasons:

  1. The business model is easy to understand and analyze.
  2. The secular trend of less cooking at home and more dining out (or carry-out) is well established
  3. It is very easy for investors to research how the units operate and sample the product
  4. Smaller chains have a large runway for growth if they decide to expand from regional to national players
  5. Private equity type transactions are common in the industry, which gives investors comparable terms to use for valuation

In recent years, however, the space has gotten very crowded. Many companies have gone public and in order to attract growth investors have promised impressive annual unit growth (10%+ per year in many cases). And there are a slew of smaller, private companies that have major growth plans. Consider two examples that I have encountered in recent years in the Pacific Northwest; MOD Pizza and Little Big Burger.

MOD was founded here in Seattle in 2008 and by 2014 had over 30 locations. After opening up the chain to franchisees, growth accelerated and there are more than 150 units today.

Little Big Burger was founded in Portland in 2010 and after only five years and 10 locations was sold to a largest restaurant operator for $6 million. The company now has plans to open at least 10 units in the Seattle area. Just what we need… another burger place!

We are seeing this all across the country. Rapid expansion of fast casual restaurants in the sandwich, pizza, burger, taco, and burrito spaces, among others. And it’s not just the larger players, but smaller concepts too that seem to yearn to play with the big boys. And so now we are facing what appears to be a restaurant buildout unlike anything we have ever seen. But with a population growing at less than 1% annually, and income growth relatively muted, how on earth can we support all of these places? It should certainly be a concern for investors.

And we have seen Wall Street adjust their willingness to assign premium values to publicly traded restaurant stocks. Fast growing concepts used to trade for 10-15x EV/EBITDA on the public markets, versus about 8x for more well known, mature brands (a crummy brand would fetch just 6x). We seem to now have a situation where most stocks in the industry are shifting down to that 8x number. The market is basically saying “we have too many units already, so either you won’t open at the rate you are planning, or if you do your profits per unit will go down.” Higher minimum wages across the country don’t help either.

So what are investors to do? I don’t think the restaurant space is “uninvestable” by any means, but we need to be more selective about the chains we allocate capital to, and also more strict in our valuation criteria. For instance, I am an investor in Kona Grill (KONA). The full service, sit-down chain will end 2016 with 45 locations across the country. For the third year in a row they are growing their unit base by 20%, which has traditionally afforded it a premium valuation. But recently sentiment has shifted. Below is a 2-year chart for KONA shares:

kona-2year

Fortunately, KONA has a lot of good things going for it. First, the CEO is the largest shareholder. Second, their concept is relatively unique and their units are doing well. Third, they are small enough to grow quickly if they want to (the company recently conducted a third party analysis which found a market opportunity of nearly 300 units in the U.S. alone, though give the content of this post, perhaps that number should be taken with a grain of salt).

As a result, management has publicly indicated that since Wall Street is no longer rewarding 20% annual unit growth, they are going to scale back their expansion plans. Since the CEO owns so much stock, he will likely turn his capital allocation attention to share repurchases. While growth-focused investors likely soured on the stock upon hearing this news (and sold, contributing to recent price declines), I actually applaud the move. With the stock trading at roughly 70% of projected 2016 revenue, retiring existing shares is an excellent use of capital. Coupled with unit growth of, say, 5%, shareholder value creation should follow.

And that is an important point. Since valuations have come down across the board for public restaurant stocks, future gains will be predicated on not only existing unit performance but also on capital allocation. Those companies that opt for share repurchases when their stocks are cheap (and debt repayment if they are not) and tweak their expansion plans based on competitive conditions (as opposed to the rigid plans they have laid out to investors in the past) are likely to be much better performers.

All in all, a lot is changing in the sector, both on the ground and in the financial markets. Recent months have not been kind to stock prices as valuations have dropped considerably, but there definitely attractive investment opportunities if you find proven concepts with management teams that are nimble and change course if conditions warrant. Count KONA as one of those that I believe fits that mold, despite poor recent stock action.

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

An Inside Look at the New Whole Foods Market Concept: 365 By Whole Foods

As more and more people have adopted a healthier diet, natural and organic specialty grocery stores like Whole Foods Market (WFM) are finding that competition is catching on to the trend. What was once labeled a small, hippie niche of the food market is now going mainstream. Products from companies like Annie’s, once able to set stores like Whole Foods apart, can now be found almost anywhere. As a result, WFM is finding that it can retain its loyal customer base that is willing to pay a little more for higher quality ingredient standards, locally sourced products, and a wonderful in-store experience, but it is getting harder to find new customers. Many people are perfectly happy with their traditional stores and not very eager to pay any more than they have to for groceries. The result is that WFM remains a profit-generating machine, but sales per store have plateaued. The stock has also reversed course, currently trading for $28 per share, down about 50% over the last 18 months.

The company continues to open new flagship stores across the country, as there continues to be a significant amount of demand for the original concept. But in order to try and expand their reach across even more customer types, WFM has created the “365 By Whole Foods” store to grow alongside the core store brand. The country’s third “365” store recently opened in Bellevue, WA, not too far from my home in Seattle and I decided to go check it out. The company has said the goal was a smaller store with fewer SKUs, focusing on cheaper items (lots of generic store branded items) and lots of automation in order to keep development and operating costs low (which further allows them to be more aggressive on price). Here are some photos of what I found:

This location actually an anchor store in Bellevue Square mall, occupying what used to be a JC Penney. During mall hours, you can access the store directly via escalator.
This location is actually an anchor store in Bellevue Square Mall, occupying what used to be a JC Penney. During mall hours, you can access the store directly via escalator.

 

Modern design interior but not a lot of fancy fixtures. Probably costs a lot less to build out than a flagship WFM store.
Modern design interior but not a lot of fancy fixtures. Probably costs a lot less to build out than a flagship WFM store.

 

Rather than run their own in-store restaurant, 365 locations will partner with local chefs to bring in fast casual dining options.
Rather than run their own in-store restaurant, 365 locations will partner with local chefs to bring in fast casual dining options.

 

Same goes for the coffee counter... outsourced to a local Seattle company.
Same goes for the coffee counter… outsourced to a local Seattle company.

 

With the goal of lowering costs, digital signage was very prevalent, including all of the pricing labels. You need less staff if you don't need humans updating prices all the time.
With the goal of lowering costs, digital signage was very prevalent, including all of the pricing labels. You need less staff if you don’t need humans updating prices all the time.

 

Automation is a trend. Here is a do-it-yourself tea kiosk.
Automation is a trend. Here is a do-it-yourself tea kiosk.

 

Weigh your own produce. Saves time at checkout and you don't get any surprises  on cost.
Weigh your own produce. Saves time at checkout and you don’t get any surprises on cost.

 

Whole Foods is known for their prepared foods and it is a huge money-maker for them (more than 10% of sales). Again, rather than not knowing how much your container will cost (priced by weight at regular WFM stores), now there is flat rate pricing.
Whole Foods is known for their prepared foods and it is a huge money-maker for them (more than 10% of sales). Rather than not knowing how much your container will cost (priced by weight at regular WFM stores), at 365 there is flat rate pricing.

 

WFM will sell some fast casual meals itself. Order and pay at the kiosk and it is sent to the kitchen for preparation.
WFM will sell some fast casual meals itself. Make your selections and pay at the kiosk and your order is sent to the kitchen for preparation.

 

I picked up my tacos at the back of the store when they were ready (computer monitors show your order's progress).
I picked up my tacos at the back of the store when they were ready (computer monitors show your order’s progress).

 

Craft beer is as hot in the Pacific Northwest as anywhere. No shortage of local brews to choose form.
Craft beer is as hot in the Pacific Northwest as anywhere. No shortage of local brews to choose from.

 

Interesting idea here; digital signage promoting the products on the aisles of the end caps. WFM makes money on advertising as well as actual sales. Smart.
Interesting idea here; digital signage promoting the products on the aisle end caps. WFM makes money on advertising as well as actual sales. Smart.

 

Overall, I was very impressed with the 365 store. Will it cannibalize regular WFM stores? Probably some, if they are close by. Will some people be attracted to the prices which skew to the lower end and are competitive with places like Target or Safeway? I think so. Will WFM see a strong return on investment on this store format? I certainly think so. The big question is how many stores like this the market can support and what others do in response. I am not sure anyone can pinpoint those answers at this point, but good for them for trying to address a clear hole in their store offering.

In the meantime, WFM stock is extremely attractive at $28 per share, in my view. At 7x EV/EBITDA and a history of opening stores that trounce the competition in terms of sales per square foot and profitability, I suspect WFM’s future remains bright and that the business will continue to be a cash cow. The stock price today does not really reflect such a viewpoint, hence my optimism.

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

Ackman Investment in Chipotle At 3x Sales Is Far From A Bargain

I have written previously about how I do not find shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) very compelling in the 400’s and recently we learned that Pershing Square’s Bill Ackman has taken a near 10% stake in the company. This move seems odd to me for a couple of reasons. First, the restaurant business is pretty straightforward, so it is unlikely Ackman engaging with CMG’s board is going to result in a dramatic strategic shift or business model pivot. I guess they could start franchising units, but that’s hardly a bombshell idea.

Second, and even more importantly from an investing standpoint, is the price Ackman is paying for a restaurant chain. At roughly 3 times this year’s projected sales of $4 billion, investors in CMG at current prices are not getting a very good deal. Before the company’s health-related issues, CMG was earnings a very impressive 21% EBITDA margin. The owned unit restaurant industry (as opposed to franchising-based) typically fetch about 8 times EBITDA in the public markets. Some quick math tells us CMG should trade around 1.7 times annual revenue. And that is before operating expenses increase due to new food safety procedures that CMG has now implemented. As a result, it is quite possible that the “new normal” for CMG is an EBITDA margin of less than 20%.

Many fans of Chipotle would likely argue that the company should trade at a premium valuation to the industry due to below-average build-out costs, above-average unit economics, and a reasonably loyal customer base. Okay, fine. Let’s give CMG a 50% premium and say it is worth 12 times EBITDA instead of 8 times (too high in my mind, but at least the case can be made). Even at the company’s old margin levels, investors would value CMG stock at 2.5 times annual sales, or about 15% below current levels.

It is really hard to see how Ackman sees this investment playing out, or how he thinks he can really move the needle by speaking with management. Customers are going to have to come back in droves to justify CMG shares trading at $500 or $600 per share. I love their food, but color me skeptical.

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

Leading Tech Companies All Chasing The Same “Next Big Things”

I miss the old days of tech investing. Times were simpler. Companies were more focused. There were one or two companies that tended to be dominant within a certain fragment of the industry. Google was search and online advertising. Amazon was e-commerce. Intel was chips. eBay was marketplace. Microsoft was operating systems and productivity software. Cisco was networking. Apple was high-end devices. Facebook was social networking. Netflix was movies. You get the picture. Oh how times have changed.

The tech landscape now has led us down a different path. Each of these companies has been extremely successful in conquering their home turf. They are all wildly profitable and have more money than they know what to do with. So they repurchase shares and pay dividends and buy startups to add talent and new technology. And after they do all of that they still have billions of dollars extra sitting around. What to do?

It appears the answer now is to become a tech conglomerate. Heck, if we took over one area of the marketplace, why not shoot for the stars? Why not be everything to everybody? So now when we talk about the leading tech companies (Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft) the future looks far less predictable.

In the old world Tesla would be the de facto electric self-driving car play. But Google is building cars. So is Apple.

In the old world Oculus would have been the virtual/augmented reality play. But in the new world Facebook acquires them and then Microsoft and Apple and Google all start working on the same thing.

In the old world Netflix would be the benchmark for streaming video. Nobody would argue that households looking to get rid of their $100/month cable bills would substitute them with a half dozen individual services that cost $10-$20 per month. The expensive cable bundle is no worse than a bundle of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Now, YouTube Red, and CBS All Access. And as if there are not enough competitors vying for your TV dollars, it was recently reported that Apple has decided it has identified the next big thing; producing original TV content. Are you kidding me?

I understand that self-driving cars and streaming over-the-top video and virtual reality could all very well be huge markets over the long term. But everyone can’t be a winner. Do you really think GM and Ford lack the ability to produce self-driving, electric cars? Are the Big Three auto makers going to be replaced by Apple, Google, and Tesla a decade from now? Are we really going to cancel our Comcast service and pay the same amount of money for less content by buying subscriptions to 6 or 8 streaming services?

The leading tech companies got to where they are today by being laser-focused on creating or improving upon one big tech trend. Becoming indispensable in that arena has made them billions of dollars and created a ton of shareholder wealth. They did not win out after a long, brutal battle with the other tech titans at the time.

The biggest risk to Apple, for example, is that the innovation they are focused on revolves solely around virtual reality, electric cars, and streaming TV and movies. That is not how Apple became Apple. And it is not the secret for them to stay at the top. The same goes for Google and Microsoft and Facebook. As long as these companies are battling against each other, as opposed to paving their own way to the future, I am afraid that those of us hoping for the next big thing to come out of the mega tech stalwarts may be disappointed. To truly develop a market-leading position you have to try something new and do so long before everyone else. Nobody is likely to catch Amazon in the public cloud computing space (although Google and Microsoft are trying, of course). They are years ahead because they saw the trend before anyone else and went all-in to the number one.

Chipotle Identifies The Next Big Thing in Fast Casual Food: Burgers, Fries, & Shakes?

Is there a bubble in fast casual restaurants in the United States? More specifically, is the burger chain craze starting to look a little frothy? Chipotle (CMG) announced this week that it is launching Tasty Made in Ohio, a new chain focused on burgers, fries, and shakes. They must see burgers as being an underpenetrated market that they can exploit with their simplified, customizable fast casual concept (he writes sarcastically). In reality, the burger space is getting very crowded, very quickly. For those chains with grand expansion plans I would be careful. For the commercial real estate developers who continue to build higher end, mixed use buildings with the expectation that they can quickly secure leases with fast casual chains due to their ever-growing desire to blanket the country, I would be careful. I don’t know when we will reach oversaturation in the fast food/fast casual restaurant segment, but we will. The population is simply not growing fast enough (less than 1% per year) to support high sales volumes and profit margins at all of these locations.

BK-150x150Fat150x150FiveGuys150x150Habit150x150

Hardees150x150InOut150x150Jack150x150 MCD-150x150

Robin150x150Burgerworks-150x150Shack-150x150Sonic150x150

SNS150x150TastyMade150x150Wendys150x150

This move by Chipotle is a bit odd considering the competition. In contrast, the company’s ShopHouse Kitchen Asian concept has far less competition (Noodles & Company and that’s about it in terms of national chains) and only 15 locations nationwide. Given that Chipotle has over 2,000 U.S. burrito restaurants, coupled with the insane growth in the burger space right now, it is bizarre that they feel this is the ideal time to launch the Tasty Made brand. Not to mention that the company also has a pizza concept called Pizzeria Locale with less than 10 locations open or under construction.

Ironically, Chipotle’s relentless focus on simplicity in its restaurant operations does not seem to be spilling over to the company’s growth plans at the corporate level. With average unit volumes down 20% at the namesake brand, the company has a lot of work to do. The competition is intense already and adding new concepts in crowded sectors of the market seems like a questionable decision at this point in time. The high valuation on the stock right now is already a red flag, but now investors might start to question management’s game plan.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. So what do you think? Is fast casual growing too fast? Are we approaching “peak burger?”

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

Consumer Trust Far From Only Issue Hampering Recovery At Chipotle Mexican Grill

The “we can do no wrong since we already got people sick” trading patterns in shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) are continuing unabated after the company reported second quarter earnings that showed a tepid traffic recovery. As you can see from the chart below, Chipotle stock has been hanging in the 400’s this year despite a slower than expected return of the company’s loyal customer base. It seems like the stock only treads water or rises even as the business is clearly struggling. Today is no exception, with shares jumping to 5% to $440 each despite a 23.6% decline in same store sales for the second quarter.

cmg

Despite the headwinds facing the company, investors continue to assign the stock a premium earnings multiple. The stock currently trades for roughly 3 times peak sales ($4.5 billion of revenue was booked in 2015), 30 times peak earnings ($15 per share in 2015) and over 13 times peak EBITDA (2015 EBITDA was ~$925M). Essentially, investors are willing to pretend that nothing has happened and recouping all of the sales and profit losses is a foregone conclusion.

I would not be so quick to discount Chipotle’s challenges. There are factors that could easily result in the company never reaching its former level of annual sales per unit ($2.5 million). First, consider that CMG continues to open new units at an aggressive pace (about 225 new locations per year). With more than 2,100 locations nationwide, continuing to open a new one every 39 hours will surely result in store cannibalization. In fact, during the second quarter same-store sales improved versus the first quarter (-23.6% vs -29.7%) but sales per unit actually declined further ($2.07 million vs $2.23 million). As more and more locations are opened, it will be harder for CMG to get that metric back up to $2.5 million.

Second, the sheer volume of new fast casual restaurants being opened (both new concepts as well as the expansion of existing ones) means that Chipotle faces more competition than it ever has. Customers who stopped eating there during the safety scare may have simply found other nearby options that they enjoy just as much. Humans are creatures of habit and if you give them a reason to break their habits (by getting people sick), it is entirely possible that their dining frequency will never return to the previous level, even after they feel safe to eat Chipotle’s food again.

All of this could spell trouble for Chipotle investors. The company’s simple business model and astounding unit economics allowed it to generate store-level profit margins of 27%, an nearly unheard-of level in the industry. The stock’s sky-high multiple reflected an expectation that CMG could see its units average $2.5 million of sales annually along with 27% margins ($675,000 of store-level profit per year). If they can not get back to those levels in 2017 or 2018, investors could very well be overpaying for the stock today. For comparison, right now store-level margins are running at 15.5% due largely to expense deleveraging from lower sales.

So what happens if the “new normal” for Chipotle is $2.25 million of annual sales per store and 20% store margins? Well, the math comes out to per-unit profit of $450,000 per year, or a decline of 33% from last year. That would mean that CMG would need 3,000 locations to get back to its prior peak level of profitability. At the current rate of new store openings, they would reach that size sometime in mid-2020. Paying three times revenue for a restaurant stock is high enough already, but without regaining their former financial glory investors might very well be left with a bad taste in their mouths.

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