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How much longer does McDonald's CEO have?

McDonald's Corp. CEO Don Thompson is headed for a showdown with Wall Street.

It's not yet clear who will play his main antagonist; maybe Carl Icahn, Bill Ackman or Nelson Peltz. Maybe it will be a lesser-known investor or group of investors. But whoever takes the lead will speak for a growing number of shareholders who are tired of waiting for sales to recover and want action to boost the stagnant stock now.

The only way Mr. Thompson can head off the confrontation is to rekindle growth at the burger chain soon. If he can't, shareholders are likely to demand action to increase returns in ways that don't require solving McDonald's stubborn problems in the fast-food marketplace.

Pressure is building for cash-generating tactics such as leveraging up the balance sheet, selling real estate, franchising more company-owned stores and slashing overhead. Such moves are seen as easier and surer than any new strategy for luring millennials or their younger siblings back to the Golden Arches or prying more dollars out of McDonald's embattled low-income customer base.

It's a familiar storyline for companies that have hit a growth wall, but one that McDonald's has managed to avoid through two years of flat-to-down sales figures at stores open at least 13 months. The time for avoidance is running out.

At a meeting two weeks ago with Mr. Thompson and other top execs of the Oak Brook-based company, analyst John Ivankoe of JPMorgan Chase & Co. made the case for structural changes. Mr. Ivankoe figures McDonald's could raise earnings per share 20 percent by borrowing more money to fund share buybacks and cutting overhead to levels more in line with other fast-food chains. He came away disappointed.

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