By JACK HOUGH
Chipotle Mexican Grill presents a dilemma, and not just for burrito buyers torn between black beans and pinto beans. Store traffic is booming, margins look plump, and Wall Street expects the company's earnings per share to jump 31 percent during the first quarter, compared with a year earlier. That's rare growth at a time when first-quarter earnings for Standard & Poor's 500-stock index are projected to increase just 6 percent. But Chipotle shares, up about 700 percent over the past three years, sell for 45 times projected 2012 earnings -- more than triple the broad market's valuation. Investors who buy now could get burned if growth slows, and those who don't buy could miss out on another doubling of the stock's price.
Here's a compromise: Run a screen for comparable companies that offer nearly as much growth for a much lower price. Below, four alternatives to some of the market's most popular growth stocks. These aren't the cheapest stocks around, relative to today's earnings, but they offer growth-minded investors a way to pep up their portfolios while paying less of a premium.
An alternative to Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings sells for 26 times earnings forecasts. Its shareholders have tripled their money over the past five years. Management says it believes the chain can support 1,500 locations in North America; it has just over 800 now. Wall Street likes to see sales growth not just from expansion but also from increased business at long-standing locations. Chipotle's same-store sales soared 11.1 percent in the fourth quarter. Buffalo's were plenty strong too, up 8.9 percent at company restaurants and 5.9 percent at franchised ones.
Amazon.com sells for more than 100 times this year's forecast earnings, but eBay, for around 15 times earnings. The latter is growing sales and earnings at double-digit rates. It isn't nearly as exposed to mobile computing and Web services as Amazon, which sells tablet devices and rents out access to vast data centers. But then, eBay doesn't carry the costs that come with those businesses, either. Amazon turned only about two cents of each sales dollar into operating profit during the past year, versus 20 cents for eBay.
Under Armour makes quick-drying clothes for the athletically inclined; Steven Madden sells shoes designed for taking it easy. Both posted big earnings-per-share growth in the fourth quarter of last year, but the latter, priced at 16 times earnings, is a better deal.
Finally, Salesforce.com, trading at more than 90 times earnings, makes Web-based software that firms use to track customer contacts. Its revenue last quarter increased 38 percent. Google, meanwhile, reported 25 percent sales growth last quarter -- not bad for an old-timer. It sells for about 14 times earnings.