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May 11, 2020, 9:43 a.m. EDT

Aurora Cannabis and Tilray set to detail hoarding of marijuana during COVID-19

Data suggests that consumers stocked up on pot at end of March, but the surge likely didn’t continue into April

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By Max A. Cherney


Bloomberg News/Landov
While there was a rush of cannabis purchases in late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Large cannabis companies Aurora Cannabis Inc. and Tilray Inc. are set to report earnings this week, providing more detail on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting pot sales and the companies making the product.

So far data suggests that as the shelter-in-place orders took hold in mid- to late-March consumers bought lots of weed to ride out the lockdown. That may be visible in cannabis companies with exposure to retail sales, but for the larger producers which don’t operate stores directly, that will show up another way. Since most companies sell to provincial government distributors, investors should watch for executive commentary around the bulk buying behavior when Tilray /zigman2/quotes/209129655/composite TLRY -3.87% reports Monday afternoon and Aurora /zigman2/quotes/210559470/composite ACB -0.39%   /zigman2/quotes/203734337/delayed CA:ACB -0.22%  reports Thursday afternoon.

Neither company directly operate bricks-and-mortar stores, though Aurora has made an investment in one. The March surge benefitted retailers in the short run, but it may not have lasted into April and investors should parse executive’s statements closely about what has happened since the quarter closed.

Overall, the data coming out of Canada reflected what occurred in the U.S. as both countries ordered their populations to shelter-in-place. People stocked up on weed the last couple of weeks in March and many increased their cannabis consumption as they were stuck at home. According to Cowen estimates, first quarter Canada sales are expected at C$479 million ($343.8 million), a 16% increase over a year ago. Several analysts wrote they expected medical sales to be relatively flat. The March-quarter is also the first full three months where second generation products such as vapes, edibles and drinks are for sale across the country.

In the U.S., after stocking up on weed in March amid the spread of COVID-19, cannabis consumers did not return to stores in large numbers until mid-April, with typical trends for weekly sales only resurfacing the first Friday of May, according to a Thursday report from cannabis-data and analytics company BDSA.

Read: Aurora Cannabis will roll up its shares Monday in a reverse stock split — here’s what you need to know

COVID-19 has affected cannabis supply chains, Cronos Group Inc. /zigman2/quotes/206842762/composite CRON -3.92%   /zigman2/quotes/202715342/delayed CA:CRON -3.34%  said Friday when it reported results, but it says it has enough inventory for the moment. Cronos’ discussion about the pandemic’s effects on the sector come considerably later and in less detail than Organigram Holdings Inc. /zigman2/quotes/209289540/composite OGI +1.60%   CA:OGI -0.44% , which was early and vocal about disruptions to its business.

As Jefferies analyst Owen Bennett says Organigram’s warnings suggest investors look cautiously at marijuana companies in 2020.

The coronavirus will impact Canadian companies, however, in the form of increased costs, uncertainty across the economy and a further delay in the sluggish opening of additional retail stores in Ontario, according to Stifel analyst W. Andrew Carter. COVID-19 will, in short, hurt companies’ “trapped by lofty valuations dictated by retail sentiment and burdered by onerous capital structures” ability to achieve profitability.

Exclusive: Pot company Cronos receives SEC inquiry

Cronos reported Friday, but it’s hard to glean too much from the results. Though it’s is one of the largest cannabis companies in the world, its strength at the moment lies in its billion-dollar war chest, which is backed by cigarette-maker Altria Group Inc. /zigman2/quotes/208895754/composite MO +1.49%   Its near-term prospects are limited and executives have been reluctant to, or declined to, offer short-term predictions. Relative to its larger Canadian rivals, the $8.4 million revenue it booked for the first quarter is relatively tiny — $2.2 million of which was from the company’s $300 million Lord Jones acquisition that closed last year.

The company’s lackluster sales may be because of its expensive, not-so-great products. As Jefferies analyst Bennett put it in a Friday note, “with the product obviously falling short with consumers on quality” and the company’s offerings “priced comfortably above average” all signs suggest its products are not selling terribly well. Following the company’s fourth-quarter $24 million inventory write-down, Cronos said Friday it charged another $8 million and told investors that more was likely coming as pricing continues to drop.

From cash to ash: Pot companies have just months to live on average, study finds

Key cannabis earnings in the coming week

• Though Aurora is expected to sell nearly C$66.6 million worth of cannabis products during its fiscal-third quarter, the company’s earnings are likely going to reflect the COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions imposed by various levels of Canadian governments. The company’s market share dropped in the last quarter and executives launched cheaper pot in response. Canadians want inexpensive weed, as it turns out, so investors should expect to see early indications of how that effort fares.

Aurora is also likely to continue to lose money as analysts polled by FactSet expect a loss of C$0.06 a share. Since the company is not as well capitalized as rivals such as Cronos or Canopy Growth Corp., /zigman2/quotes/200603886/composite CGC -5.08%   /zigman2/quotes/202205609/delayed CA:WEED -4.42%  it has had to use several less-than-favorable mechanisms to keep itself afloat. Investors should expect an update on its cash position in Thursday’s call.

After jettisoning several executives as the company’s shares tumbled, it’s possible Aurora may name a replacement to former Chief Executive Terry Booth on Thursday, PI Financial analyst Jason Zandberg wrote in a note to clients last week. Zandberg rates Aurora the equivalent of a hold with a C$2 target price. Currently company chairman, Michael Singer, is the acting CEO.

Monday, Aurora is set to consolidate its outstanding stock, granting investors one share for every 12 they currently hold. The company elected to consolidate its float upon receiving a de-listing threat from the New York stock because its stock traded below $1.

• British Columbia-based Tilray is expected to report first-quarter earnings Monday after the closing bell, with a conference call at 5 p.m. Eastern time. According to Stifel analyst Carter, investors should expect to see some impact from the company’s second-generation cannabis products such as chocolates, vaporizer cartridges and cannabidiol beverages with its joint-venture partner Anheuser Busch Inbev S.A. /zigman2/quotes/209225053/composite BUD -1.13% . Carter rates Tilray a hold with a $5.50 target price. It’s also likely the company will sell a lot less medical pot in bulk. The FactSet consensus is a loss of 45 cents a share on sales of $49.3 million.

• The maker of a cannabis-derived epilepsy drug with U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, GW Pharmaceuticals PLC /zigman2/quotes/209686240/composite GWPH -17.21% , is set to hold an earnings conference call Monday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time. The company’s biggest money maker is Epidiolex, the weed-derived drug, which analysts expect to generate $106.9 million in first-quarter sales.

• One of the most well known U.S. cannabis companies with a focus on cannabidiol, or CBD, products Charlotte’s Web Holdings Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205374221/composite CWBHF -3.77%   /zigman2/quotes/212650907/delayed CA:CWEB -2.63%  has its earnings conference call scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

• U.S. multi-state cannabis operator Green Thumb Industries Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200716694/composite GTBIF -0.62%   /zigman2/quotes/206151134/delayed CA:GTII -0.10%  is set to report results after the closing bell Thursday and host a conference call at 5:00 p.m. Eastern time to discuss the earnings.

Struggling Alberta-based licensed pot producer Sundial Growers Inc. /zigman2/quotes/213489825/composite SNDL -3.47%  is set to hold an earnings conference call Friday at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time. The company will release the numbers Thursday after the closing bell.

Cannabis Watch: see all of MarketWatch’s cannabis coverage here

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Max A. Cherney is a MarketWatch reporter based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @chernandburn.

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