Restaurant stocks were hot earlier this year; now they're not. Fast-food restaurant stocks, in particular, have been taking it on the chin recently as rivals duke it out with new lower-price menus. The resulting price war has already caused casualties to several of these players' earnings estimates. Nevertheless, a contrarian investment stance may be in order, given the bargain valuations now being assigned to this group.

Here's a rapid-fire summary of what's caused the carnage in this group recently. Two weeks ago today, Wendy's(NYSE: WEN) reduced its current-year earnings estimates by a few pennies. Then, this week, McDonald's(NYSE: MCD) rocked the financial markets with news that it will report its first-ever quarterly loss next month. Following suit, yesterday, Jack in the Box(NYSE: JBX) reduced its full-year earnings guidance for 2003 by nearly 20%. One notable exception comes from Yum! Brands(NYSE: YUM) -- operator of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut -- who last week reconfirmed its guidance for both 2002 and 2003.

The result has been stock market carnage for these stocks. Compared to its 52-week high, McDonald's has fallen 49%; Wendy's, 35%, Jack in the Box, 51%; and Yum! Brands, 28%. The upshot, however, is that the current bad news has largely already been discounted into these companies' stock prices. Check out where P/Es for this group stand based on current earnings estimates for 2003:

                    Recent    2003 EPS     Forward
                   Price    Estimate      P/E
McDonald's        $15.57     ~$1.40       11.1
Wendy's           $27.04     ~$2.11       12.8
Yum! Brands       $23.84     ~$2.06       11.6
Jack in the Box   $16.61     ~$2.03        8.2

For a group that over the past seven years has an average P/E of around 20, the current prices look awfully cheap. Wendy's, in particular, seems to represent a company that's not in the throes of reorganization, but is merely suffering in sympathy with its peers. Also, consider that Wendy's is owner of fast-growing subsidiary Baja Fresh, a tex-mex grill which, if you haven't tried it, is fantastic.