One of last year's more surprising turnaround stories is gearing up for its first big test of 2019. Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) will report its fourth-quarter results after Wednesday's market close, and the stock is likely to move following the financial update.
Investors aren't holding out for much. Wall Street pros are forecasting a profit of $1.34 a share for the fourth quarter, flat with the prior year's showing. The revenue target calls for a 7.4% increase to $1.19 billion, essentially a meager uptick in comps with expansion doing most of the heavy lifting. This isn't the kind of financial performance that one would expect from a stock that has more than doubled since bottoming out nearly a year ago, but it helps to know where Chipotle's been and where it's at in sizing up the prospects of where it will be in 2019.
Analysts are getting hungry
Wall Street notes have been mostly upbeat heading into Wednesday afternoon's report. Baird analyst David Tarantino boosted his price target on the shares from $560 to $600 on Friday. He's expecting a solid quarter out of Chipotle, and he's more excited about the chain's shot at improving its operating performance as 2019 plays itself out.
A day earlier, it was Wells Fargo's Jon Tower and Piper Jaffray's Nicole Miller Regan jacking up their price goals. Tower is neutral on the stock -- and his revised price target is still lower than where the shares are now -- but he feels that Chipotle will exceed expectations in the quarter, just as it has topped Wall Street's profit forecasts in each of the past four quarters. His concern is that the stock may have gotten ahead of itself and discounted the turnaround, keeping his own enthusiasm for near-term appreciation in check.
Regan feels that there's still room to run, judging by her new price target of $590. She sees healthy trends in 2019, fueled by expanding its delivery, improving its in-store throughput, and new menu introductions and TV marketing campaigns that should woo back customers.
Bumping store traffic higher is a big deal at Chipotle these days. Comps have been positive through most of the past two years -- up 6.4% in 2017 and rising 3.3% through the first three quarters of 2018 -- but lately all of the store-level growth is coming from folks spending more as prices inch higher and new introductions like queso find patrons springing for additional items. Customer counts per store are actually declining.
Chipotle will probably beat analyst profit targets on Wednesday afternoon -- just as it has routinely done -- but the real trick here would be growing comps and the per-store transactions count. The chain needs this to be a statement quarter. Chipotle stock roared back into investor fancy last year, and recently hit three-year highs. It hasn't been a perfect turnaround despite the rapidly ascending share price. Wednesday's report will have to justify the recent gains, while also signaling that the party is just getting started in 2019.