A Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf on it is seen during the annual 4/20 marijuana rally on Parliament Hill in Ontario, Canada on April 20 2017. Picture: REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE
A Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf on it is seen during the annual 4/20 marijuana rally on Parliament Hill in Ontario, Canada on April 20 2017. Picture: REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE

Toronto — Cannabis investors banking on profitability in the second half of the year may have another thing coming: more losses at best, and maybe a surprise stack of writedowns.

Although pot stocks have enjoyed a heady start in 2019 due to global marijuana legalisation efforts and the burgeoning use of CBD as a wellness product, backers are starting to judge their investments by profitability instead of hype, and patience is wearing thin. Of the five largest Canadian pot companies, only Cronos Group is expected to report adjusted net income by the final quarter of the year, according to Bloomberg data.

Instead of profit, writedowns related to unfinished inventory may be in the offing for some Canadian companies. This has some investors voting with their feet, moving out of Canada and into the US, where the marijuana companies are generally performing better despite patchwork, state-by-state regulations.

“It’s symbolic that the Canadian guys have really not been able to deliver on some of their expectations and the American companies have,” said Greg Taylor, chief investment officer at Purpose Investments and manager of the Purpose Marijuana Opportunities Fund.

Until recently, cannabis companies could get away with losing large sums of money as long as they said the right things about their future growth prospects. But the abrupt firing last week of Bruce Linton, co-CEO of Canopy Growth, indicates that things have changed.

Canopy clipped

Linton’s departure came after the company lost C$323m in the quarter ended March 31, prompting frustration at alcohol giant Constellation Brands, which owns about 36% of Canopy and holds a majority of its board seats. Constellation CEO Bill Newlands said publicly he was “not pleased” with the results.

“Now investors are starting to judge the companies a little differently,” said Charles Taerk, CEO of Faircourt Asset Management, which runs the cannabis-focused Ninepoint alternative health fund. “They’re starting to say, ‘Wait a second, how are they profitable and you’re so far from profitable?’”

A few standouts, such as Organigram Holdings, have proven that it’s possible to achieve positive earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda) as the one-year anniversary of legal recreational use in Canada approaches. Aurora Cannabis also recently re-affirmed its expectation of positive ebitda in the second quarter of calendar 2019.

Still, those that have achieved positive ebitda aren’t being rewarded yet. Organigram trades at a price-to-sales ratio of 25, well below Canopy at 65 and Cronos at 197. Overall, cannabis stocks have outperformed so far this year, with the ETFMG Alternative Harvest exchange-traded fund (ETF) adding 24%, and its Canadian counterpart, the Horizons Marijuana Life Sciences Index ETF, rising 23%.

Writedown worries

There’s also the fear of writedowns related to inventory not ready for sale, which could be of low quality and ultimately not usable for either the dried flower or extraction market, said BMO analyst Tamy Chen.

Some companies — including Canopy, Aurora and Aphria — also carry high levels of goodwill due to their “aggressive pace of acquisitions at prices above book value”, increasing the likelihood of a writedown, said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Kenneth Shea.

This year could also see a rise in the amount of litigation related to “loose corporate governance” at pot companies, said Morgan Paxhia, co-founder of cannabis hedge fund Poseidon Asset Management. CannTrust Holdings is the subject of several class-action lawsuits after it was found by Canadian regulators to have grown marijuana in unlicensed spaces. Its stock has lost 39% since Monday’s open.

It’s not all bad news, though. The second half of the year will involve a few catalysts for Canadian pot companies, including the addition of up to 50 more stores in Ontario and the legalisation of edibles and vapes. However, analysts say the impact of these changes won’t be felt in a meaningful way until 2020.

That’s one of the reasons Taylor of Purpose Investments is making a play outside of Canada. He’s been buying US-focused pot stocks such as Harvest Health & Recreation and Curaleaf Holdings. “We’ve moved our portfolio more to the US,” he said. “They’ve been coming at it more as operators and they’re putting up much better numbers.”

Bloomberg