It appears analysts don’t know what to think of Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. (NYSE:CMG) following the company’s earnings report last night. The fast casual dining chain earned at least two upgrades and a host of price target cuts to go along with them. Investor sentiment is decidedly bearish, however, as Chipotle shares fell by more than 3% to as low as $457.70 today.
Wells Fargo upgrades Chipotle Mexican Grill
Wells Fargo Senior Analyst Jeff Farmer is perhaps the most positive voice on Wall Street today. He upgraded Chipotle Mexican Grill from Market Perform to Outperform following his firm’s study of past foodborne illness outbreaks involving dining chains. Over the last 25 years, they tracked same store sales and share price recoveries of major foodborne illness outbreaks.
Farmer says that although the studies aren’t perfect, they illustrate that peak declines in same store sales can be halved in only six months following the incident. Further, sustained growth in same store sales can come back in 12 to 15 months following the incident. To come to these conclusions, he examined incidents involving Jack in the Box, and Taco Bell, plus two different incidents involving KFC China and other incidents of multi-quarter same store sales declines like McDonald’s and Starbucks.
He also found that when looking at same store recoveries in the quarter in which a decline lasts multiple quarters “delivers a first quarter of improved sequential SSS performance, have historically resulted in very healthy share price appreciation over the first four quarters of the improved SSS period,” he wrote.
Chipotle to begin marketing efforts to claw back sales
As a result, he expects Chipotle’s same store sales to return to growth in the second quarter and continue growing for several quarters.
The Wells Fargo analyst raised his valuation range for Chipotle Mexican Grill from between $420 and $450 per share to between $500 and $530 based on these studies, adding that last night’s earnings report didn’t really contain any surprises. Fourth quarter earnings actually beat the guide of between $1.70 and $1.90 per share, coming in at $2.17. Revenue came in at $988 million, missing the consensus of $1.01 billion, although earnings beat the consensus at $1.85 a share.
Chipotle to Neutral at BAML
Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts upgraded Chipotle Mexican Grill from Underperform to Neutral and raised their price objective to $475 per share following last night’s report and the results of their recent survey. They expect the company’s shares to remain volatile for now but believe the multiple will be higher on depressed earnings and improving customer sentiment.
Analyst Joseph Buckley said his recent survey suggests customers “could have a willingness to return to the brand, motivated by the passage of time with no additional food issues.” Last night Chipotle said the probe involving its foodborne illnesses and food safety issues is finished, although the Centers for Disease Control hasn’t issued the official “all-clear” yet. In addition to time and the CDC all-clear, customers may also be waiting for more confidence, signs that the new food safety measures are working, and discounts to draw them in.
However, Buckley also said his survey indicates that there has been a significant negative shift in the Chipotle brand’s “perceived healthiness” since June 2015. The percentage of respondents who saw Chipotle Mexican Grill as a healthy food choice fell from 44% in June to 32% recently while the percentage of those who saw it as unhealthy edged higher from 11% to 16%. The percentage of those who were neutral on the healthiness of the brand’s food climbed from 45% to 52%.
It must be noted that BAML’s report was issued on Tuesday prior to the earnings release, however, and the analyst was looking forward to management’s commentary on January sales, which weren’t pretty.
Chipotle Mexican Grill also earns price target cuts
On the flip side, some analysts are shifting more negative based on last night’s results with Barclays analyst Jeffrey Bernstein cutting his price target from $465 to $450 per share. He highlighted that this will be quite difficult for Chipotle with limited visibility on the back of a 36% decline in comparable store sales in January. While management explained that others needed four to five quarters to recover from foodborne illness incidents, Bernstein thinks Chipotle Mexican Grill might need more time because there was more than on incident and the dining chain is battling social media.
Credit Suisse analyst Jason West also slashed his price target, pushing it from $530 to $475 per share after “taking a kitchen cleaver” to his 2016 estimates, although he still expects a recovery and maintains his Outperform rating. Goldman Sachs also cut its target from $600 to $550 but remains Buy-rated.
Deutsche Bank analyst Karen Short emphasized that sometimes uncertainty creates opportunity, but in this case, she is cautious, as she maintained her Hold rating and $400 price target.