Does McDonald's Have a Plan for Growth?

By Markets Fool.com

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Visiting McDonald's less than you used to? Same-store-sales figures say you are.

Wall Street generally takes a wait-and-see approach whenever a new CEO takes the helm -- even if the company's stock was overvalued to begin with and the new CEO appears to lack a comprehensive plan to solve its true problems.

For a good example of this phenomenon, look no further than McDonald's . New chief Steve Easterbook has his company outperforming the S&P 500 by a modest margin thus far, while providing no substantive reforms to turn things around.

In early May, after a month of kicking the tires and strategizing on a turnaround plan, Easterbrook gave a widely anticipated video presentation with his prescribed fixes. Unfortunately for investors, the 23-minute presentation was long on specifics in areas that probably won't change the company's long-term growth trajectory -- most notably, his plans to cut $300 million annually in costs, refranchise more company-owned stores, and aggressively return capital to shareholders -- while it was short in the areas that could drive a return to growth.

So while it's possible that Easterbrook's changes will provide a short-term earnings boost, it doesn't change the long-term issues the company faces: perceived low-quality food that consumers are increasingly rejecting, and bloated menus that slow food delivery and escalate tension with franchisees. Actually, Easterbrook's plan will increase the franchised store base and possibly exacerbate problems. In the critical area of food quality, Easterbrook's presentation fell flat, and investors sold off the stock 1.7%. S&P downgraded its debt that same day.

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Not reporting numbers doesn't change numbers
Following the turnaround-plan fiasco, the company addressed its struggling same-store-sales figures -- which had fallen for 11 consecutive months -- by announcing it will stop reporting the figure, as it "lends itself to more volatility."

While most of McDonald's competitors have also stopped announcing monthly sales figures, this reporting change won't impact McDonald's actual performance. In all probability, this decision will lead to more volatility around quarterly reports, when sales figures must be reported.

And while cost-cutting can make up for sluggish revenue growth in the short term, to reward investors on a long-term basis a company must grow its top line. In the end, McDonald's can't cut its way to prosperity and shareholder gains. That's important, as this mature company is now valued at a PEG ratio of nearly 3, with an expected 7% annualized EPS growth over the next five years -- a figure certainly not priced for earnings decreases.

It's all about the food
At this point, what ails McDonald's has become so widely discussed that it's almost a cliche. Consumers are looking to move away from perceived low-quality fast food and evolving toward fresh ingredients.

For the best example of this migration, look no further than former McDonald's subsidiary Chipotle and the tremendous growth it's registered. McDonald's has tried to improve its menu quality recently with a sirloin burger, but that's only a limited-time item. It won't singlehandedly improve McDonald's food-quality reputation.

For a burgers-to-burgers comparison, Shake Shack has grown rapidly, registering a year-over-year same-store-sales increase of 11.7% for the last reported quarter, while McDonald's reported a U.S. comparable sales decrease of 2.6%. And while it's important to note that these numbers are on entirely different scales -- McDonald's reported more revenue in one day last quarter than Shake Shack reported for the entire quarter -- Shake Shack is growing, as more people become attracted to its high-quality burgers.

It will be hard for McDonald's to fully reinvent itself, as its value proposition has been cemented as a low-cost value-meal provider. But this reinvention may be required for long-term success. In the end, refranchising restaurants is thinking small, and shareholders should expect more from the company.

The article Does McDonald's Have a Plan for Growth? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Jamal Carnette has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.