Few industries have been kicking tail and taking names more so than marijuana. Having long been considered an illicit substance that was cast aside by legislators around the globe, cannabis is now a legitimate business model. Globally, over 40 countries have given medical marijuana the green light, with two (Canada and Uruguay) also allowing the recreational sale of the drug.
It's also a business model that's generating big-time returns for investors who've had the wherewithal to bet on marijuana stocks from an early date and hang on for the ride. Sure, the better than 50% gain in the Horizons Marijuana Life Sciences ETF since the beginning of the year might appear impressive, but it's peanuts compared to the triple-digit or quadruple-digit percentage gains that some of the biggest pot stocks have delivered since the beginning of 2016, which is when marijuana mania really kicked into high gear.
Today, no marijuana stocks that garner more attention from Wall Street or investors than Aurora Cannabis (NYSE: ACB), Canopy Growth (NYSE: CGC), and Cronos Group (NASDAQ: CRON). This trio is also responsible for some of the most robust returns since the start of 2016. Here you'll find out how much money you'd have today if you had invested a cool $1,000 into each of these marijuana stocks in 2016.
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Aurora Cannabis: $20,620
Aurora Cannabis is easily the most popular pot stock among millennial investors, and arguably the most polarizing pot stock on Wall Street. It's also a company that would have yielded close to a 2,000% return to long-term investors who'd held on for the ride since the start of 2016.
The allure of Aurora Cannabis is the company's leading production potential and superior international push.
In terms of production, Aurora's management is conservatively calling for in excess of 500,000 kilos of annual run-rate output by the midpoint of 2020. However, following the acquisitions of MedReleaf for $2 billion and South America's ICC Labs for $200 million, as well as increasing the size of its mammoth organic Aurora Sun campus in Medicine Hat, Alberta, I believe well over 700,000 kilos should be expected on a yearly basis by 2022. Being the top Canadian producer should make Aurora a logical candidate to land lucrative long-term supply deals, as well as significantly lower its per-gram growing costs, which should benefit from economies of scale.
As noted, Aurora has also done an impressive job of planting the seed, so to speak, in foreign markets. Including Canada, the company has a production or distribution presence in 24 countries, which is hands-down tops in the industry. These foreign markets should be particularly valuable within the next couple of years, which is when dried cannabis flower oversupply and commoditization is expected to occur in Canada. Having ample external sales channels should help buffer Aurora's gross margin.
Perhaps the one downside here is that Aurora's acquisition-heavy strategy has meant issuing its common stock like Monopoly money. Since the end of fiscal 2014 (June 30, 2014), Aurora's share count has risen by over 1 billion shares. Thus, while long-term investors have netted a handsome return since the beginning of 2016, it's absolutely been muted since the beginning of 2018 on account of share-based dilution.
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Canopy Growth: $35,978
The largest marijuana stock in the world by market cap has also had an impressive run, surpassing Aurora Cannabis in the return department. Investors with the stomach to invest $1,000 into Canopy Growth at the start of 2016 and hang on for the ride would have seen a close to 3,500% total return.
Canopy Growth brings a number of advantages to the table that have caused Wall Street and investors to flock to this stock. To begin with, it has more cash and cash equivalents at its disposal than any other marijuana stock. It ended its fiscal third quarter (Dec. 31, 2018) with an impressive $3.67 billion in cash and short-term investment, which the company plans to use for complementary acquisitions, brand building and product development, as well as its push into foreign markets, including the United States.
Where'd Canopy get its cash hoard? Look no further than Corona and Modelo beer maker Constellation Brands' (NYSE: STZ) $4 billion equity investment that was announced in August and completed in November. The deal gave Constellation a 37% equity stake in Canopy, as well as provided warrants to Constellation that can be exercised at a later time to boost its stake to as much as 56%. Thus, investors are excited about the potential for a buyout by Constellation, as well as the company offering its marketing, branding, and product development expertise to Canopy Growth.
This is also a company with impressive production potential. Though Aurora Cannabis is the clear No. 1, Canopy Growth is the obvious No. 2, with more than 4.4 million square feet of its 5.6 million square feet of cultivation space already licensed by Health Canada. Assuming Canopy produces around the industry average of 100 grams per square foot, more than 500,000 kilos is a real possibility.
The one knock against Canopy would be its lack of profitability. Some investors cite Amazon.com's desire for e-commerce dominance and its ignorance of profitability for more than a decade when discussing why Canopy Growth is a buy. But make no mistake about it, Amazon and the marijuana industry are nothing alike. Canopy will be among the last pot stocks to be profitable on a recurring basis, and that could wind up limiting its upside in the interim.
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Cronos Group: $71,839
But among the most popular marijuana stocks, none would have delivered a more robust return for investors since the beginning of 2016 than Cronos Group. Investing a cool $1,000 into Cronos would yield close to $72,000 today, assuming you held on through the wild swings in the company's share price.
The biggest catalyst for Cronos Group is the $1.8 billion equity investment it received from tobacco behemoth Altria (NYSE: MO). Announced in early December, but closed in March. Altria's investment into Cronos gave it a non-diluted 45% stake in the company, with the option to exercise warrants that it also received to increase its ownership to as high as 55%. Similar to the Constellation-Canopy deal, investors view this as Altria's pathway to eventually acquire Cronos Group. It also opens the door for the duo to work on pre-rolled and/or vape products.
More important, this deal provides Cronos Group with much-needed capital that it can use to boost production capacity, diversify its product portfolio, build up its brands, make complementary acquisitions, and move into international markets. Prior to Altria's investment, Cronos had less than $25 million in cash and cash equivalents.
Investors are also pleased with Cronos Group's up to $100 million deal with Ginkgo Bioworks, announced this past September. In return for its substantial investment, Cronos will gain access to Ginkgo's proprietary microorganism development platform. This platform can create yeast strains that'll produce targeted cannabinoids at commercial scale; and presumably at a lower cost than traditional extraction techniques.
Then again, the gains that Cronos has provided might be the most tenuous of all. With only around 120,000 kilos of peak annual production, the company might struggle to hang onto its spot among Canada's top-10 growers. It also has a minimal presence in foreign markets, with modest cultivation capabilities in Australia and Israel, and distribution deals in Germany and Poland. Without adequate external sales channels, Cronos Group could see its margins crushed by dried flower oversupply in the years to come.
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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Sean Williams has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool recommends Constellation Brands. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.