McDonald's Looks Undervalued: Buying Opportunity?

McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) is reporting uninspiring sales growth lately, and competitors like Chipotle (NYSE: CMG  ) , Burger King (NYSE: BKW  ) , and Wendy's (NASDAQ: WEN  ) are clearly outperforming the company. However, the stock looks attractively valued at current levels. Should you capitalize on the opportunity to invest in a solid company at a convenient valuation, or is the worst yet to come for investors in McDonald's?

Not so yummy anymore
McDonald's reported results for the fourth quarter of 2013 on Thursday. Earnings per share where marginally above analyst's expectations, but sales growth has become a recurring problem for the company during the last quarters. Global comparable sales increased by a lackluster 0.1% during the quarter; the average check was higher, but traffic declined versus the prior year.

Like many of its peers, McDonald's has turned to product innovation in order to differentiate its offerings in a highly saturated and competitive market. The company launched new products like its McWrap and Mighty Chicken Wings, and it also added more variety and different price alternatives to its Dollar Menu in order to compete more effectively in pricing.

However, customers seem to prefer other alternatives lately, and management recognizes that it needs to step up its efforts if the company is going to turn things around: optimizing the menu, modernizing the customer experience, and broadening accessibility are the three pillars in the company's plan to reignite growth in the middle term.

The competition
Fast-casual restaurants are gaining a lot of ground versus traditional fast-food chains lately, as customers seem more than willing to pay a few extra dollars in exchange for superior ingredients and a more sophisticated atmosphere. Chipotle is a growth leader in that category; the organic burrito company is outgrowing McDonald's by a considerable margin, and delivered explosive revenue growth in the area of 18% during the third quarter of 2013.

Burger King has made an impressive comeback during the last years; the company is remodeling its stores and introducing successful products like its lower-calorie french fries, Satisfries. Customers seem to be responding nicely to the company's initiatives: Global comparable sales increased by 0.9% during the third quarter of 2013, but total system-wide revenue grew by a stronger 4.9% on a constant currency basis.

Menu innovation seems to be the name of the game among fast-food chains, and Wendy's is proving to its competitors that effective innovation can bear its fruits. Offerings like its new Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger and Pretzel Pub Chicken sandwich have been quite productive for Wendy's lately, and the company is forecasting a robust growth rate of between 2.5% and 3.5% in same-restaurant sales at company-operated restaurants during 2014.

Many companies in the consumer sector are experiencing lackluster demand lately, and the trend toward healthier nutrition is clearly not helping fast-food chains. However, competitors like Chipotle, Burger King, and Wendy's are doing much better than McDonald's, so the company can't entirely blame its uninspiring performance on outside factors like the economic environment or changing consumer habits.

Attractive valuation
Comparing valuation levels for McDonald's versus Chipotle, Burger King, and Wendy's, it's easy to see that the company is priced at a significant discount to its peers. McDonald's is cheaper than its competitors when looking at P/E ratios, forward P/E levels, and dividend yield, so the market is pricing McDonald's for slower growth.

Data Source: FinViz

The dividend yield of 3.25% looks quite tempting for a financially solid company with an outstanding track record of dividend payments. McDonald's has raised its dividend in each and every year since 1976, and the current payout ratio around 55% of earnings is quite safe for a big and stable business like McDonald's. The company's dividend yield and dividend growth track record should provide some downside protection from current levels.

Bottom line
McDonald's is finding it hard to generate sales growth, and competitors like Chipotle, Burger King, and Wendy's are doing considerably better and gaining market share against the fast-food giant. On the other hand, the stock is attractively valued, so downside risk seems to be limited unless things become materially worse for the company. If McDonald's manages to reinvigorate sales growth -- and that's quite a big "if"-- the company is offering considerable upside potential.

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