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Is Trouble Brewing Ahead for Starbucks?

Imagine for the moment that you’re an extremely astute market timer, and you bought Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) stock sometime during early March 2009 for around $8.50. And let’s say you’ve held the stock since then, enjoying a relatively carefree ride to present levels of $61.67.

That’s a not-too-shoddy return of 625% in a little over three years!

Now, given that stupendous return, is it time to throw cold water on your coffee beans? Well, let’s take a look at Starbucks today, and figure out if you should now take some profits and look for other stocks that are a little less “roasted.”

Starbucks seems to be a major beneficiary of post-malaise consumers who are sick of feeling poor or are a bit less worried about their jobs or businesses collapsing. As a result, they’re beginning to spend discretionary income again.

I often use Peter Lynch’s “count the cars in the parking lot” strategy to watch the Starbucks at my local mall, in an effort to discern if the public is in a generous or stingy mood. In 2006, when the economy was rocking, the lines at this Starbucks were a mile long. But in 2009, you could walk right up to the counter and order that overpriced Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino.

Once again, the lines at Starbucks are deep, although not nearly as intensely as in 2006. But will that trend continue going forward, and has this demand already been factored into the current stock price?

The Bullish Case

Investors continue to bet the answer is “yes.” On Friday, as all three major indices sank, Starbucks, by contrast, rose a whopping 1.72%. As I recently noted, a stock that shows strong relative strength on a bad market day is a stock that’s usually worth owning for awhile.

Despite the doubling in price since last September, Starbucks continues to pay a decent annual dividend of 68 cents per share. The announcement of the Verismo line of single-serve coffee makers has hammered Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ:GMCR). And of course, the lines are still strong at my local mall. If the economy continues to improve, companies such as Starbucks will derive the benefit.

The Bearish Case

Starbucks will report its next earnings on April 26. Expectations are for earnings of 39 cents per share, with $3.18 billion in revenue. And it’s entirely possible that SBUX could meet those expectations. But will that be enough to propel this stock forward after such an extensive run-up? Recall how often we see overextended stocks get slaughtered, simply because they don’t greatly exceed the analysts’ expectations.

There are four reasons to make a bearish argument on SBUX right now:

First, I have some concerns about recent insider selling. Five company insiders — CEO Howard Schultz, officer Paula Boggs, officer Clifford Burrows, director Mellody L. Hobson, and officer Troy Alstead — have been recent heavy sellers on the open market in the $51 to $53 range. Schultz alone has sold over $74 million worth of stock since March 13. The stock price is now up about 15% higher than where these execs sold. If multiple insiders are nervous at these levels, shouldn’t investors be as well?

Second, the technical indicators are extremely overbought, with a relative strength index (RSI) right now in the 80s and a stochastic at 96. The stock is at the upper range of the Bollinger Bands. While overbought does not mean done, it does mean that those who are long need to tighten their stops, and those who are contemplating a purchase should consider waiting for a better opportunity.

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Chart courtesy of

Third, Starbucks has decided to expand its core business by taking on Green Mountain Coffee with single-serving coffee makers and Jamba Juice (NASDAQ:JMBA) with a new juice line. When a company begins to deviate from its main product line, it’s taking on a greater risk. What happens if consumers don’t like the coffee makers or the juice?

Fourth, right now, the price-earnings multiple of SBUX is 36.93. While some companies can survive a high P/E for awhile, it’s not the best time to be chasing a stock.

Then there are the unknowns, such as high gasoline prices and a possible recession in Europe. While markets can climb a wall of worry, I don’t want to own a company that sells a nonessential product while consumers figure out how to fill up their cars without busting their budgets.

So for me, Starbucks is a stock to admire — but definitely not one to own at current levels. It wouldn’t surprise me to see it go a little higher, and there are options plays to set up for a possible fall. However, for the moment, rather than assume SBUX can keep climbing, I’d rather sit back with a nice cup of coffee and peer through my charts for a better opportunity.

As of this writing, Ethan Roberts owns shares of Jamba.

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