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Chipotle Mexican Grill: Buy at the High?

By Rick Munarriz – Updated Apr 23, 2019 at 11:04PM

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The baron of burritos is hitting a three-year high, but chasing the reinvigorated growth stock could be dangerous.

Check out the latest Chipotle Mexican Grill earnings call transcript.

The last time Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG 0.23%) traded as high as it's doing these days was before queso, chorizo, and Chiptopia crept onto the restaurant chain's menu and turnaround strategy -- and only one of those three debutantes is still around. Chipotle stock hit a three-year high on Friday, and while that's still far removed from its all-time 2015 high, anyone who has bought into the suddenly resurgent burrito roller over the past three years is well into the black. 

Conventional wisdom tells you that buying at a high is dangerous, but history paints a far more bullish portrait. The "buy low, sell high" mantra is no match for "buy high, sell higher," especially when momentum is in a stock's corner. Chipotle may be hitting fresh multiyear highs, but that doesn't mean it's too late to pull up to the chain's assembly line and place a new order. 

A Chipotle burrito in signature tinfoil wrapper.

Image source: Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Bowling for dollars

Chipotle's burritos, tacos, and bowls are popular again. Comps have been largely positive since the final month of 2016, and at least one Wall Street pro doesn't have a problem with jumping in when the stock's hitting recent highs. 

Peter Saleh at BTIG jacked up his price target from $515 to $605, suggesting that there's at least 14% more of upside. Saleh new price goal is the highest among his peers, but anyone who's been following Chipotle's ascent knows the drill. As the stock moves higher -- and the shares have soared 115% since bottoming out last February -- analysts keep buttering up their profit targets.  

We're nowhere close to peak Chipotle. Comps rose 6.4% in 2017 and have climbed 3.3% through the first nine months of last year, but it's still deep in the hole after comparable-store sales plunged by more than 20% in 2016. Unit-level sales are nowhere close to the chain's 2015 apex, and margins are also a shell of what they used to be.  

Chipotle will have a great chance to justify the past year of gains next week when it reports its fourth-quarter results. It can get closer to eliminating some of the lingering demons, primarily the blemish on its turnaround that transactions per store are declining. Comps have been positive in recent quarters as a result of higher prices, and revenue is moving even higher as the handiwork of expansion. 

Chipotle shares have been on diablo sauce since the company hired away Taco Bell's chief to be its new CEO. He hasn't revolutionized the menu or turned store-level traffic around the way the bulls had initially expected, but the subsequent rally and Chipotle's baby steps forward have given those long the stock hope. 

The stock will be volatile next week, making a purchase now a high-risk move for a potentially sweet reward. We'll know how strong the chances are for Chipotle to keep padding its recent heady gains after its fourth-quarter results, but by then the good news may already be baked into the share price.

Rick Munarriz has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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