Chipotle shares are too expensive; buy them.
That may sound like confusing advice, but that's what Wall Street analysts, as a group, are advising investors. The mean analyst rating is "outperform," but the mean target price on the stock is $495.04, according to FactSet. That's almost $9 below Thursday's closing price, and 2.1 percent below the stocks' average price on the dates those reports were issued.
In some ways, this is a function of how difficult the stock is to analyze.
Chipotle is dealing with apparent consumer reticence following widespread E. coli outbreaks. The company has also dealt with bouts of norovirus, most recently in Massachusetts, where a Chipotle store was briefly closed after a few employees fell sick with what appeared to be the contagious illness.
In response to the health scares, Chipotle sales have fallen precipitously, as has the stock. Recently, Wells Fargo analyst Jeff Farmer has said he sees signs of a sales rebound after the company's free burrito promotion, although it is fair to say that the jury remains out.
Some have made the disconnect between their view of the stock and their target price explicit. In a much-discussed December note, Piper Jaffray analyst Nicole Miller Regan cut her target on the then $561 stock to $529, while maintaining an "overweight" rating.
While granting that this approach was "unconventional," Regan explained that while she remained bullish on the stock's longer-term prospects, she "expects shares to experience additional pressure during upcoming trading sessions as the market digests the news," with the key word there perhaps being "digests."
Since then, Regan further lowered her target to $500, while maintaining that "overweight" rating.
Another approach comes from Jefferies. That bank's covering analyst, Andy Barish, reduced his price target on the stock to $390 from $420 in the beginning of September, while maintaining a "hold" rating. This after cutting his target to $420 from $500 in the beginning of January.
Even this $390 target, however, entails expectations of a price-earnings ratio of 40, which just goes to show how much optimism investors are still managing to have about the company at this point.