Marijuana's "Big Four" Stocks Will Likely Lose Money in 2020

Rapid sales growth won't save these popular pot stocks from another year of red ink.

Sean Williams
Sean Williams
Jul 9, 2019 at 7:21AM
Health Care

The cannabis industry is likely to be a major moneymaker in the years to come. A new report from Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics estimates that worldwide licensed-store sales -- which excludes cannabinoid-based pharmaceutical sales and cannabinoid sales in general retail stores, such as supermarkets -- could hit more than $40 billion by 2024, up from less than $11 billion in 2018.

Although estimates on what peak yearly sales might look like by 2024, 2030, or whatever year analysts choose as their end mark vary wildly, one thing is for certain: Investors expect marijuana's "Big Four" pot stocks to thrive. That's why Canopy Growth (NYSE:CGC), Aurora Cannabis (NYSE:ACB), Cronos Group (NASDAQ:CRON), and Tilray (NASDAQ:TLRY) have been able to support hefty valuations for so long. Despite all four still ramping up their production and processing operations, they respectively carry market valuations of $13.8 billion, $7.7 billion, $5.1 billion, and $4.6 billion.

But the reality of investing in the cannabis space is that, while sales are expected to soar, there will be bumps in the road. These four pot stocks may have the full and undivided attention of Wall Street and investors, but forecasts of rapid sales growth still may not be enough to save them from another year of losses in fiscal 2020. (I say "fiscal 2020," because some of these marijuana stocks -- Canopy and Aurora -- run on different 12-month cycles than a calendar year.)

Here's a brief synopsis why each of the Big Four pot stocks will likely lose money in 2020.

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Image source: Getty Images.

Canopy Growth

Even though Canopy Growth has a number of factors working in its favors, including having roughly 70,000 kilos' worth of supply agreements (in aggregate) with all 10 Canadian provinces, and netting cultivation licenses on more than 4.8 million square feet of its 5.6 million square feet set aside for growing, it's arguably the likeliest to lose money in fiscal 2020.

Canopy Growth has mostly thrown caution to the wind with its aggressive international expansion plans. For instance, pushing into the U.S. hemp market via a processing license in New York state and the acquisition of intellectual property company ebbu in November will likely pay long-term benefits for Canopy by allowing it to establish important processing infrastructure in the United States. If the U.S. federal government ever legalizes marijuana, it'll have a leg up on its competition. But these moves on the proverbial chessboard may not play out for many years to come, which is saddling Canopy Growth with large operating expenses and big losses in the interim.

The other factor to consider here is that, as Canopy Growth's operations have expanded into more than a dozen markets, its share-based compensation for its growing number of employees has increased substantially, too. With little near-term payoff on this expansion, this expensing and ultimate share-based dilution will hurt its operating results.

Also, having recently shown the face of its company the door, Canopy's board is now searching for a permanent CEO option. No matter who the new CEO is, cost-cutting will likely be priority No. 1 for fiscal 2020.

A person holding cannabis leaves in front of a globe of the Earth.

Image source: Getty Images.

Aurora Cannabis

Aurora Cannabis slots in as the largest projected grower in Canada, with at least 625,000 kilos of annual run rate output forecast by the end of fiscal 2020 (June 30, 2020). Unfortunately, producing more marijuana than every other grower doesn't necessarily mean the company will be profitable next year.

There are two factors working against Aurora Cannabis' push to profitability (and no, dilution isn't one them, even though it's a topic I like to harp on).

First, there's the ongoing supply side issues in Canada. Health Canada was contending with a backlog of over 800 license applications, mostly for cultivation, in January, yet has approved fewer than 190 licenses for cultivation, processing, and sale since 2013. Growers looking for the OK to grow, process, or sell marijuana have had to wait months, if not more than a year, for the green light. Even though Health Canada has a fix for this backlog mess, Aurora is still awaiting licensing on three of its largest facilities, and it's clearly been affected by early-stage supply issues. Health Canada is working toward a resolution, but it's not going to happen overnight.

The second issue here is that Aurora has set itself up to dominate the global medical cannabis scene with a presence in 24 countries (including Canada). However, this geographic diversity only comes into play when domestic demand has been satiated. It's highly unlikely that recreational weed supply in Canada meets demand in 2020, pushing out Aurora's chance to shine until 2021, at the earliest.

A vape pen next to a vial of liquid and neatly arranged piles of dried cannabis flower.

Image source: Getty Images.

Cronos Group

Cronos Group has been a favorite among retail investors since it landed a $1.8 billion equity investment from Altria, which works out to a 45% non-diluted stake in the company. The idea here being that Altria will either buy the company outright at some point in the future, thereby putting a floor under its valuation, or make Cronos Group a success by helping to develop vape products for when derivative products launch in Canada.

However, like Aurora Cannabis above, there are two flaws with the bull thesis, at least in the short term.

The first problem is that Cronos Group trails many of its peers, both big and small, from a production perspective. Sure, Cronos Group may call itself a cannabinoid company, with a predominant focus on derivative production, such as cannabinoid oils at commercial scale. But that still doesn't mask the fact that its roughly 117,500 kilos of peak yearly output doesn't even place it among the top 10 retailers of marijuana, if joint venture and royalty producers are included. In other words, it could be a while before Cronos produces meaningful sales from its grow farms.

The other concern here is that Health Canada's timeline for the launch of derivatives is a bit later than what investors had been expecting. Laws regulating derivatives, such as vapes, will go into effect on Oct. 17, 2019, the one-year anniversary of Canada's recreational legalization. Unfortunately, derivative products will only begin hitting dispensary shelves by mid-December, at the earliest, and they're likely to be impacted by the same supply issues that have plagued dried cannabis flower since October. This more than likely means a full-year loss for Cronos Group in 2020.

Multiple clear jars packed with dried cannabis buds on a counter.

Image source: Getty Images.

Tilray

After lighting up Wall Street's ticker tape in September 2018, marijuana bottle-rocket Tilray should also find its way to the loss column in 2020.

When Tilray held its IPO on the Nasdaq in July of last year, it had laid out a clear business plan in its S-1 prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Pretty much every investor was expecting Tilray to challenge Aurora and Canopy as a top-tier Canadian producer, and use its strong medical branding to push into foreign markets. But nearly a year removed from its IPO, Tilray's game plan looks nothing like what we all expected.

In March, CEO Brendan Kennedy announced that Tilray would de-emphasize Canada as an investment opportunity and instead focus on moving into the U.S. hemp market and into Europe. Both the U.S. and Europe's medical marijuana markets offer higher long-term sales potential than Canada, but it's a strange decision to make just months after Canada legalized recreational weed. This shift in strategy means new, costly investments that'll weigh on the company's bottom line.

Making matters worse, Kennedy has blamed a lot of Canada's supply problems on other growers not producing what was expected of them. Of course, this is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black since Tilray has been forced to buy wholesale cannabis to meet its own supply commitments. As long as Tilray is purchasing wholesale marijuana, its margins are likely going to be too low to support recurring profits. That makes Tilray a good candidate to lose money in 2020.