It's time for Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG 0.20%) to earn its gains. The meandering burrito roller has moved 18% higher since bottoming out in mid-November, but the real test comes on Tuesday afternoon when Chipotle posts financial results.
Hungry for a comeback, it's easy to wonder if Chipotle can get its turnaround strategy on track. The chain has generally struggled since the first of the food-borne illness outbreaks in late 2015, but hope springs eternal among the chain's fans and its investors. Let's go over some of the things that can trip up Chipotle's latest rally.
1. Earnings can disappoint
Shares of Chipotle took a 15% hit last time out, falling short of Wall Street's sales, earnings, and comp targets. It was a rare miss on the bottom line for Chipotle, as it has historically been able to surpass the low bar that's been set during its lull.
Analysts see revenue climbing 8% to $1.12 billion and profits more than doubling to $1.32 a share. These are big steps up, but we're also talking about really depressed results a year earlier and the start of the stumble the year before that. Chipotle earned $3.91 a share for the fourth quarter of 2014, so it's earning roughly a third of what it did three years ago. The bar is either high or low depending on how you frame things, but at this point in Chipotle's uncertain turnaround, there is plenty of room for failure.
2. Analysts are souring on Chipotle at the worst time
UBS analyst Dennis Geiger downgraded Chipotle late last week, slapping it with a sell rating and lowering his price target. The timing -- just four trading days ahead of the company's report -- is not a coincidence. Geiger sees downside to expectations for the fourth quarter. He also sees risks looking out to analyst estimates for the next two years as weak store-level sales and brand perception issues weigh on its performance.
Geiger isn't the only analyst who's skittish heading into the report. A couple of Wall Street pros increased their price targets last week, but they remain skeptical with neutral ratings. The new price goals are actually below where the stock is now, so we can't read those moves as bullish.
3. New products won't spur new interest
Bloomberg reported on Friday that bunuelos -- the dessert that Chipotle was supposed to be rolling out this year to drum up incremental sales -- has been put on hold after failing to impress in Chipotle's consumer-facing test kitchen in New York. How bad must the item be if the short-lived chorizo and poorly received queso got through?
Chipotle can no longer be counted on to innovate its way to a turnaround after so many recent misses. It will probably be asked about bunuelos on Tuesday afternoon, but the point here is that new products can no longer be considered catalysts.