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What Gave McDonald’s Investors Indigestion in 2012?

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Now that 2012's nearly in the rearview mirror, investors are beginning to sift through the market for the best stocks of the upcoming year. The future is plagued with uncertainty, but that has always been the case, and it's never stopped us from seeking out long-term values. One way to find those values is to look for companies with a long history of success. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) contains many such companies, but some are better investments than others.

Today we'll be taking a look at McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) , a Dow component since 1985, to see if its past-year performance holds some clues for 2013.

First-half recap
McDonald's has been one of the worse performers in the Dow this year, as it's drastically underperformed the index over the course of a rare weak period:

MCD Total Return Price Chart

MCD Total Return Price data by YCharts.

To find out why, let's first examine a few financial snapshots of its recent performance:

Market Cap

$89.2 billion

P/E and Forward P/E

16.7, 14.9

Price to Free Cash Flow 


TTM Revenue Growth


TTM Net Income Growth


TTM Free Cash Flow Growth 


MRQ Revenue

$7.2 billion

MRQ Net Income

$1.5 billion

MRQ Free Cash Flow

$1.2 billion 

2013 Projected Growth Rate 


Sources: Morningstar, Yahoo! Finance, and YCharts.
TTM = trailing 12 months. MRQ = most recent quarter.

What the numbers don't tell you
McDonald's isn't particularly expensive, but its fundamental growth through the past four quarters doesn't appear to justify analysts' optimism. Neither does its latest quarterly earnings, one of the weakest in years. Europe was blamed for softness, but a more worrying concern might be food-price inflation, which has hit restaurateurs up and down the line.

Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG  ) has been the poster chain for inflation pain, as the formerly booming burrito-maker fell back to earth this year on weaker-than-usual growth numbers. And if, as my fellow Fool Travis Hoium points out, consumers are trading up for better fast food as the economy improves, a weaker Chipotle could portend a flatlining McDonald's.

On the other hand, not every fast-food chain felt the pain in 2012. Wendy's (NASDAQ: WEN  ) has been pushing hard to keep longtime No. 2 burger joint Burger King Worldwide (UNKNOWN: BKW.DL  ) , which fell to third place recently, in its rearview mirror. Both Panera Bread (NASDAQ: PNRA  ) and Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM  ) boosted their earnings in the most recent quarter, and same-store sales came in well ahead of McDonald's and even beat Chipotle. However, these rivals aren't out of the woods yet -- Yum! anticipates that weakness in its Chinese franchises will drag down worldwide growth.

Although this wasn't the strongest year for McDonald's, it's hardly headed for oblivion. Its trailing-12-month net income, at $5.4 billion, is larger than all of the competitors listed here combined. Its 20% profit margin has been remarkably consistent for the past several years and is at least double  that of any competitor save Yum!, which has inched up to a 13% net margin in its latest quarter. Its Latin American franchisee, Arcos Dorados (NYSE: ARCO  ) , recently posted by far the best same-store sales growth of many publicly traded chains during the summer months, which indicates (at least for now) that the Golden Arches are far from tarnished in the global consumer's mind.

This past year wasn't the best for McDonald's. Will its future be brighter? The Fool's consumer analysts have assembled a wealth of data on Mickey D's key initiatives and major challenges for the year ahead, and it's all available in our exclusive premium research report. Whether you're a long-term shareholder looking for good news, or a potential investor in search of smart reasons to buy, you'll find the answers you need in our reports. Click here to subscribe now, and you'll get a full year of updates as more news comes to light.

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