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Billionaires Bail on McDonald's: Should You Follow Suit?

By Rick Munarriz - May 24, 2016 at 4:21PM

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With 10 billionaire-led funds unloading 7.9 million shares of McDonald's stock, it seems that the rich have eaten enough.

Diners may be marching back into McDonald's (MCD 2.46%) these days, but don't be surprised if they bump into some of the wealthiest investors on Wall Street that are going the other way.

The Motley Fool scoured through dozens of recent 13-F filings for billionaire-led funds, only to find that 10 of them unloaded nearly 7.9 million shares of McDonald's during the first three months of the year. There were a few funds buying McDonald's stock during the quarter, but there was far more selling than purchasing activity.

Billionaires don't always get it right, and I'm certainly not going to suggest you turn your back on the Golden Arches just because a few seasoned and historically successful traders have decided to ease up on the stock. However, the selling is substantial enough to wonder if the billionaires are right. Should you be following the moneyed pros out the door?

The near-term response is that the billionaires didn't get it right. McDonald's went on to post blowout quarterly results after the quarter came to a close. The stock went on to hit fresh all-time highs in April following the report, and it's continue to set new high-water marks through the month of May. It's quite possible that these 10 billionaires went on use their proceeds from the stock sales to bankroll investments that have fared even better this quarter, but you won't find too many McDonald's investors smarting these days.

Supersize the stock

After two years of consistently negative comps we finally got the first whiff of a stateside turnaround at McDonald's. Comps turned positive late last year, and the holiday quarter's 5.7% year-over-year increase in comps for domestic eateries was followed by a 5.4% spike during the first quarter of this year. International comps are holding up even better.

McDonald's is in a good groove, and investors have been bidding up the stock since Steve Easterbrook was promoted to the CEO office last year. He has helped usher in improvements in food quality and service, though his initial plans to streamline the menu seem to have gone out the window since McDonald's began offering many of its breakfast faves all day long. It's working.

The world's largest burger chain remains misunderstood. Bears will argue that sales and net income peaked in 2013, but that's not fair. Handing company-owned stores to franchisees is holding back the top line, something that wasn't evident when comps were going the wrong way but it's clear now with revenue retreating slightly despite store-level sales growth. Profits are still not where they used to be, but aggressive share buybacks are eating into the fully diluted share count to boost earnings on a per-share basis. It may very well have been buying some of the stock that the billionaires were selling earlier this year.

McDonald's is also shelling out a healthy quarterly dividend. It has devoted more than $20 billion to stock buybacks and dividend distributions through the past three years. It's hard to bet against a company when a turnaround is in its early stages, especially when it's a big brand that's putting its money where its mouth is through aggressively returning money to its stakeholders. The billionaire-led funds left some money on the table as the stock went on to hit new highs this quarter. They will probably be leaving more on the table in the future as the turnaround continues to play out.

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