Takeaway: If management’s denials persist, we believe MCD will continue to underperform and may prompt Bill Ackman to dust off the old slide deck.
Editor's note: This research note by Hedgeye Managing Director and veteran Restaurants analyst Howard Penney was originally published January 30, 2014 at 10:42 in Restaurants. For more information on our subscriber services click here.
For the past year, we have been harping on our “Espresso-Based Conspiracy Theory” as one of the reasons why McDonald’s is struggling to grow its top line. The evidence supporting this assertion continues to pile up.
In short, we believe the McCafe strategy creates additional complexity in the back of the house and diverts resources away from the core food business. We’ve always viewed McDonald’s as a food first destination and whenever management shifts their focus away from food and to beverages, the core business suffers. To that extent, we contend that the early success of the beverage strategy (cold beverages) masked a decline in the core business (selling burgers and fries).
At the most recent analyst meeting and earnings call, management finally began to “come clean” with some of the issues that are impacting sales trends. None of the issues the company addressed, however, included McCafe. In fact, part of their 2014 strategy includes increased marketing resources to “go after the coffee consumer in 2014.”
On the 4Q13 earnings call, Chief Operating Officer Tim Fenton admitted that the never-ending LTOs and menu changes in 2013 overcomplicated operations. The menu changes in 2013 included:
- Mighty Wings
- Premium McWraps
- Steak & Egg Burrito
- Fish McBites
- Steak Breakfast Sandwiches
- New Quarter Pounders
- Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger
- Hot’n Spicy McChicken
- The Dollar Menu & More (with five new burgers)
During the analyst meeting a couple of months ago, Don Thompson said: “We stumbled a bit last year with too many new products, too fast and we created a lot of complexity.” This may be true, but we contend that the issues McDonald’s faces did not start in 2013. These issues really date back to 2009/2010, when we saw the national launch of McCafe and an accelerating number of menu introductions.
Later in the note, we use a chart from Burger Business, along with management’s comments from the 4Q13 earnings call, to put our thesis in perspective.
By way of background, part of the 2003/2004 “Plan to Win” strategy included a Time & Motion analysis of the restaurants’ back of house operations. With this study, management had determined that employees’ movement in the kitchen had become inefficient. Management’s desire to fix this was a key driver in simplifying the menu and streamlining operations.
In 2014, management is now once again talking about the Time & Motion of employees in the back of the house. However, this time management does not appear to be a taking a holistic approach to fixing these issues. Rather, these moves strike us as more geared to specific menu items. To illustrate our point, we have reproduced a chart from Burger Business looking at the evolution (bloating) of the McDonald’s menu since 2004.
As you can see in the chart below, the total number of items on McDonald’s menu increased by 75% from 2004 to 2014. This means an incremental 51 items have been added to the menu over that period, making the current day menu very difficult for crews to execute.
More importantly, there are two sections that account for the bulk of the menu proliferation. Not only are the number of Burgers, Sandwiches, Wraps up by 60%, but McDonald’s also created a whole new beverage category called McCafe (espresso drinks added in 2009; smoothies and frappes added in 2010).
Knowing how important Time & Motion is to the performance of McDonald’s restaurants, we continue to believe that McCafe has played a critical role in the slowing sales trends at their restaurants. This is an issue that management continues to ignore and could very well exacerbate!
To their credit, management has addressed part of the menu proliferation with the roll out of its high density kitchen tables. As management said on the 4Q13 earnings call, “These new high density kitchen prep tables are designed to deliver enhance service capabilities and menu choice to our customers.” We believe these high density tables should address Time & Motion issues associated with burgers, sandwiches, and wraps – to an extent. Management also supported this thought: “On the capacity, any time during our peak hours, if I can keep place in place and not have their feet moving to restock or to get something else or have crossover,” they, theoretically, will be able to improve the performance of their stores.
While this may be a step in the right direction in an attempt to better execute the current menu, this will also allow for additional customization. While they may need this additional customization to remain competitive in the market place, it could mitigate some of the benefits of the high density tables.
In addition, management has failed to address the proliferation of beverages and the impact of the McCafe strategy. Is it possible to add two new pieces of equipment (needed to make McCafe beverages) and not create additional Time & Motion inefficiencies? We don’t think so, but management appears unwilling—at least at this point—to acknowledge this.
So how does this end?
The high density kitchens will be rolled out to the entire system by the end of 2Q14. Therefore, McDonald’s should begin to see better sales trends by July 2014. If, however, this doesn’t happen and weakness persists into 2H14 (meaning high density kitchen tables are not the panacea for sluggish sales trends), the focus of analysts and investors will shift to other issues the company could be facing. If and when this time comes, we’d expect management to be more upfront about the issues surrounding the McCafe strategy.
Only time will tell.
If management’s denials persist, we believe the stock will continue to underperform and may prompt Bill Ackman to dust off the old McDonald’s slide deck and step in to push for more changes at the company.
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Janet Yellen opened the door for “un-tapering” yesterday. Great. No surprise... the slow-growth commodity inflation rip-trade? It loved that. Utilities and Gold are leading the V-bottom S&P 500 parade as the US Dollar remains bearish TREND versus both the Euro and Yen now.
Got Pounds? The Bank of England's Mark Carney is definitely not Janet Yellen. The BOE doesn't have to do the whole lingo thing about “taper” or un-taper in the UK; they just need to talk about rates and currency higher, which perpetuates purchasing power, consumption growth, etc. At $1.65 versus the USD, this remains our favorite major currency.
continued yesterday w/ the CRB Index and Gold moving to +3.6% and +7.2% YTD (vs SPX and Russell2000 -1.6% and -4.4%); while I was dead wrong being net short the US stock market yesterday, that doesn’t mean I capitulate on what I think is our most outside of consensus theme
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The Fed's Bullard must be smoking something in CO w/ this 3% US GDP call for 2014 @KeithMcCullough
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"It is the trouble that never comes that causes the loss of sleep."
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“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
We are short the consumption growth components of the US stock market. And that means we were wrong yesterday. It’s ok to say it that way – we see the real-time score for what it is, not what we want it to be.
Ellen Langer uses the aforementioned quote in a #behavioral psych book I just finished called Counterclockwise. Her concept of “mindfulness” fits how I see things in macro (on the margin). “Noticing differences is the essence of mindfulness. Don’t imagine, however, that all this needs to be exhausting… mindfulness is actually energizing, not enervating.” (pg 52)
Being wrong for a few days is a little different than being wrong for a few months (or years). When I was younger and wrong, I’d get mad. Now that I am less young, being wrong energizes me – especially when I notice something that isn’t consensus.
Back to the Global Macro Grind…
To be clear, I’m not the only one who has noticed that Janet Yellen is re-opening Pandora’s real-world inflation box with another Federal Reserve ideological “innovation” (the #untapering). Mr. Macro Market has been front-running her for 6 weeks:
- Dollar Down
- Rates Down
- Inflation Expectations Up
That, of course, is fantastic for slow-growth-yield-chasing asset prices like:
- Gold +7.1% YTD
- MSCI REIT Index +6.3% YTD
- Utilities (XLU) +3.5% YTD
Not to be confused with US #GrowthAccelerating asset prices like:
- Consumer Discretionary (XLY) -4.1% YTD
- Consumer Staples (XLP) -3.3% YTD
- Russell2000 -3.0% YTD
Alongside Boehner waiving the debt limit last night (without conditions!), what we have here is another Big Government policy investing-style shift towards #InflationAccelerating. This isn’t new. It’s what happened to the Dollar in both Q1 of 2008 and 2011. Inflation is a tax.
The inflationary concept that zero isn’t zero is what the Fed calls “policy innovation.” Happy #Darwin Day! #1806
In Q1 of 2008, Bernanke whispered to his boys that he was going to do the “shock and awe” thing and cut to zero; so, while demand was slowing, Oil prices ripped humanity a new one by the summer time ($150/barrel), perpetuating US #GrowthSlowing.
In Q1 of 2011, Bernanke continued to send sweet nothings down his communication pipes that zero really wasn’t zero – it was zero minus whatever # of QE’s he damn well wanted. The CRB Commodities Index, Gold, etc. ripped to all-time highs, US consumption growth slowed, and Utilities (XLU) closed the year +14.8%.
In Q1 of now, zero still really isn’t zero because you have to:
- Subtract 2 tapers from the 0 minus 3-4 QE’s
- Then add expectations of un-tapering to the 2 tapers…
- And add a minus taper to a real-rates # … and you get a dovish Dollar
Or something like that.
The Fed, of course, doesn’t see it this way. But no matter how they want to see their theoretical world, market expectations and prices see them the way the real-world is.
While I am sure this will all end well, can the US stock market continue higher? Obviously the answer to that is yes. But what parts of the market will lead? Will they be food/energy inflations, real-estate inflations, and/or some of those beauty MLPs?
I don’t know anything about nothing, but I am certain that everything that you eat, put in your car, and pay for from a housing perspective has nothing to do with inflation or your cost of living.
In other news, as both the British Pound and Euro gain strength versus Yellen’s Burning Buck, both the UK and German governments are taking up their GDP growth estimates for 2014 (British Pound remains our favorite currency vs USD).
How that #StrongCurrency correlation to growth thing works is cool. It’s too bad that un-elected and unaccountable US central planners aren’t paid to see the history of currency appreciation, real-purchasing power, and consumption growth for what it is.
Our immediate-term Macro Risk Ranges are now (all 12 macro ranges are in our Daily Trading Range product):
Nat Gas 4.57-5.34
Best of luck out there today,
Keith R. McCullough
Chief Executive Officer