McDonald's Stock Is Past Its Prime -- Time to Throw in the Towel

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Like many shareholders, I have been wondering for several months now whether McDonald's (MCD) was a name worth holding. Sales trends at the fast-food giant have been tepid of late. Earnings growth has slowed. Some blame went to the slow economy in Europe over the past few years, some blame went to problems in Asia.

But, more and more frequently, one gets the feeling that the casual dining world has passed McDonald's by. Plus it seems that the company has no effective method for catching up to smaller, more nimble competitors offering healthier fare.

McDonald's shares were trading just over $101 on Thursday at 1 p.m., up nearly 0.6% for the day and 4.2% year to date. The stock is heavily shorted.

Although the stock has outperformed the S&P 500 (SPY) modestly year to date, this probably has more to do with the flight to safety from more high-flying groups earlier this year -- plus the company's 3.2% dividend yield -- than with any renewed growth expectations.

However sluggish the company's results were, many investors were probably holding on to the stock in anticipation of a new capital deployment plan.

That plan came out yesterday, May 28, and was greeted less than enthusiastically by the markets. The stock fell about 1% on a day the S&P 500 was up marginally. Volume was about 180% of normal.

The long-anticipated plan calls for the company to return $18 billion to $20 billion to shareholders from 2014 to 2016 via dividends and share buybacks. This, the company added, represented a 10% to 20% increase over the amount of cash returned between 2011 and 2013. In 2013, the company returned about $4.9 billion of its $7.1 billion of operating cash flow to shareholders. We're talking about going up to $6 billion to $6.7 billion going forward.

Big whoop!

That 10% is not enough to move the needle. While 20% seems possible, it is not assured. Much of the cash the company will redeploy is going to come from refranchising some 1,500 restaurants over the next two years, mostly in Asia-Pacific, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Some cash will come from new debt.

Is this enough to get the stock moving upward and to the right again?

My guess is no.

First of all, the few estimates made so far after the announcement suggest earnings would be 3% higher by 2016 than they'd be without the capital redeployment. Also, like virtually every company in the sector, McDonald's is a stock driven in main by sales growth, particularly same-store sales growth. And that is not happening in a convincing manner. Global same-store sales were up 0.5% in the first quarter, better than last year's drop of 1%, but far below the 4% to 7% growth of 2008 to 2012.

New and more health-conscious menu items such as wraps, salads, etc., have been introduced, as have new beverages. They have been a mixed blessing, generating revenue but also raising costs and probably sacrificing service speed.

The latest catch was the recent free coffee giveaway, designed in part to compete with Taco Bell's new breakfast initiative. It was something of a desperate move to generate traffic in the restaurants in the morning.

McDonald's is one of the country's legendary businesses and has been a great stock for several decades. However, it may be past its prime.

It is probably time for investors to look for something more in tune with the changing dietary needs of consumers worldwide.

Peter W. Tuz is president of Chase Investment Counsel of Charlottesville, VA. The firm manages about $420 million on behalf of institutions and individuals. The opinions expressed by Mr. Tuz are his alone.

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At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, but MCD is held in some portfolios managed by his company.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

Peter W. Tuz, CFA is president of Chase Investment Counsel of Charlottesville, VA. The firm manages about $420 million on behalf of institutions and individuals. The opinions expressed by Mr. Tuz are his alone.

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