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Restaurants are classified as "consumer discretionary" because customers can easily discontinue their patronage during a recession.


(MCD) - Get McDonald's Corporation Report

hasn't been adhering to that model.

Instead, the fast-food behemoth has been acting more like a member of the "consumer staples" sector: companies, like supermarkets, that sell everyday needs whose sales remain relatively stable, even during recessions.

It seems that even when squeezed for cash by the current recession, parents are finding the financial wherewithal to keep their kids in Happy Meals. Possibly also helped by commuters who are passing up pricier eateries for "Mickie D" lunches, McDonald's worldwide "comparable location" sales at its restaurants increased 1.4% in February compared with a year earlier. Because last month contained one fewer day than February of 2008, a leap year, sales adjusted for the calendar difference were 5.4% above a year earlier. January's global comparable sales leaped 7.1%.

The consensus forecast among securities analysts who track McDonald's is that net earnings per share will advance 2.4% for the fiscal year ending in December and climb 9.7% next year.

Some investors have taken notice. With the

Dow Jones Industrial Average

grabbing headlines for its slide this year, McDonald's stock is the No. 1 performer on the benchmark index during the past 12 months, falling only 0.2%.

As can be seen in the accompanying table, Ratings' quantitative-evaluation model assigns McDonald's a "reward" mark of "A" and a matching "overall" grade. Only two stocks currently have earned higher overall grades than MCD, with only 39 better in the "reward" category.

Of 5,400 stocks with "risk" grades from Ratings, only 16 have better marks than the hamburger giant.

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McDonald's price-to-earnings multiple of 13 and a fraction, based on this year's estimated results, is in line with firms that are expected to hold up during the economic downturn. The same is true of its current dividend yield of 3.76%, which is comparable to the

S&P 500's

yield of 3.57% and surpasses the return on 30-year Treasury bonds.

The stock advanced steadily from the low teens in early 2003, as the economy climbed out of the last recession, to the mid-$60s last summer. It then backed off to its current range in the low $50s.

In a perverse way, McDonald's has been used recently as a gauge of market value. When

General Motors

(GM) - Get General Motors Company Report

crumbled to the $3 range, wags on Wall Street asked whether it was wiser to buy a Big Mac or a share of the auto giant. Then, when one-time banking titan


(C) - Get Citigroup Inc. Report

collapsed toward penny-stock status, they asked if its shares should be listed on McDonald's dollar menu.

But in recent months, McDonald's sales figures indicate that consumers have been showing a distinct preference for Big Macs over GM's stock or shares in Citi. Investors looking for a stock with an attractive dividend yield priced at a reasonable multiple of earnings should take a look at McDonald's shares.

Richard Widows is a senior financial analyst for Ratings. Prior to joining, Widows was senior product manager for quantitative analytics at Thomson Financial. After receiving an M.B.A. from Santa Clara University in California, his career included development of investment information systems at data firms, including the Lipper division of Reuters. His international experience includes assignments in the U.K. and East Asia.