McDonald's is lovin' its recession profits

If you've driven past your local McDonald's (MCD) lately, you've probably noticed that it looks a lot fuller than most other restaurants in your area. That's because the number one hamburger chain has become the master of what consumers are salivating for during the recession: a bargain meal.

McDonald's customer Emery Jones says, "ever since the recession started, my wife and I have been frequenting Mickey D's more, especially when we want a cost-effective $8 dinner for two. . . . Our order usually consists of two double cheeseburgers (for me), one Big Mac (for her), and two small fries."

The steady foot traffic from customers like Jones has meant good news for McDonald's bottom line. Today, the chain said its first-quarter earnings, driven by global sales, rose 87 cents a share, beating Wall Street expectations. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect a profit of 82 cents per share.

CEO Jim Skinner say sales, which have been helped by new chicken products and espresso-based drinks, will likely remain strong. April same-store sales, he says appear "at least as strong or better than first-quarter sales in every area of the world."

But it's not all smiles for Ronald McDonald. The hamburger chain, which has huge exposure in overseas markets, is being affected by the stronger U.S. dollar, which has taken a bite of revenue. Last month, the company warned that "unprecedented volatility in foreign currency exchange rates" could eat into its profits by at least $600 million. Sales fell 10 percent over the past quarter.

And for investors, the lure of fast food chains seems to be waning a bit. Despite its valiant showing during the recession, McDonald's stock has taken a 12 percent hit over the past quarter. In March, signs of a weakened appetite for fast food showed up at the home of the Whopper, sending Burger King's stock sliding 20 percent. Another rival's stock, Yum Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, which also beat estimates Wednesday, has also been under pressure but was upgraded by JPMorgan last week due to lower commodity prices and tighter cost controls.

fast food chart

Besides earnings, here's what else is on the menu at the Golden Arches:
  • McDonald's is giving away free coffee for two weeks, upping the ante in the coffee wars.
  • Rumor has it that McDonald's will roll out its new, unnamed Angus burger in August.
  • The company is rolling out an in-restaurant network, the McDonald's Channel, in nearly two dozen locations across the U.S.

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