March was a strong month for pot sales. As the coronavirus pandemic put consumers on edge, many people loaded up on cannabis, presumably in anticipation of prolonged stays at home. However, the data suggest that sales surged during the first half of the month, while sales began to decline toward the end of the month. Some industry experts went so far as calling pot "recession-proof" and similar to alcohol in its resiliency.
However, it may be far too early to tell if that's the case. For investors, April will be a very telling month, and whatever happens will shed light on whether pot stocks will be okay during the coronavirus pandemic, or if their sales could take a significant hit in the weeks and months ahead.
Why March data won't help in forecasting sales during the pandemic
It was only March 11 when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. By then, it was still too early for consumers and businesses to feel the impact of what was happening. Sales in the coming days continued to be strong. Governments have since instituted more drastic measures, such as lockdowns, to help stop the spread of COVID-19. And while many states have allowed cannabis stores to remain in operation via delivery or curbside pickup, Massachusetts deemed pot sales a nonessential business, and on March 24 marijuana stores in the state had to shut down.
The ever-changing situation surrounding the pandemic is just one reason why the numbers from March are going to be unreliable moving forward. As states take different and more advanced steps in slowing the spread of COVID-19, their decisions will have different impacts on the industry. Assuming that what happened during the first two weeks of March is the start of a trend would be premature. By March 15, there were fewer than 170,000 reported cases of COVID-19 around the world. Today, there are more than 2 million cases. The measures to stymie the spread of the coronavirus are far more significant today than they were in early March and will have a more profound impact on just how well the industry will do as the pandemic keeps weighing down global economies.
Job losses are another area likely to more heavily impact sales in April than in March. Data up until April 4 show that over the past three weeks, nearly 17 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits. That's why in April, data on cannabis sales will demonstrate whether consumers consider cannabis to be absolutely essential, as they prioritize their purchases in light of lost jobs and tighter budgets.
What does this mean for investors?
Multi-state cannabis operator Curaleaf Holdings (CURLF 2.87%) reported its quarterly earnings on March 24 and said its sales jumped 20% due to COVID-19. However, it also pulled its forecast for the remainder of the year, noting that there were some big question marks ahead. Its sales in Massachusetts, for instance, will be hit hard as its stores are shut down in that state. And it will also feel the impact in Nevada where tourism drives demand. Those headwinds -- combined with March's sales numbers being inflated due to panic buying and job losses not yet crippling the economy -- could mean sales for Curaleaf and other pot stocks will be much worse in April.
Shares of Curaleaf are down around 40% since the beginning of the year, which is a bit worse than the Horizons Marijuana Life Sciences ETF (HMLSF 2.26%) which has fallen by 33% during that time. The S&P 500, meanwhile, is down around 14%. Where pot stocks go the rest of the year, however, will largely depend on how much of a dent COVID-19 has on their sales. And it wouldn't be surprising if sales were to continue tapering off in April as consumers close their wallets. The pandemic is likely far from being over, so cannabis investors may want to hold off investing in any pot stock until seeing how strong April's sales numbers are.