By Todd Harrison Updated Mar 4, 2019
Asymmetric opportunities are the Holy Grail for any investor and once they arrive, the potential returns could be a generational game-changer.
I began my career at Morgan Stanley in 1991 and subsequently held leadership roles at several large hedge funds. I was already well-versed in the dynamics of risk when I began to research cannabis in 2012. Soon thereafter, I shared it as my single-best investment thesis for the next decade.
I was looking at tax revenues, job growth, prison populations, crime rates and court systems, all of which would presumably benefit from the legalization and industrialization of cannabis and hemp. A funny thing happened, however, a twist of fate. I began to follow the science and once that occurred, everything changed.
The disconnect between perception and reality is where profitability is found and therein lies the forward opportunity. Despite the 30,000-year relationship with humanity, mostly through the lens of health and wellness, cannabis remains massively misunderstood following ninety years of prohibition and propaganda.
This won’t be a niche market or cottage industry. As society debates the moral implications, a tsunami of global growth has emerged. Some will continue to smoke it – just as some people still listen to vinyl records—but most won’t. In cannabis 2.0, they’ll eat it, drink it, wear it, rub it on, stick it in and take bubble baths in it.
As the wellness aspects are better understood, and once the non-euphoric use-cases and end-products proliferate the global economy, we expect cannabis to become a legitimate asset class that is embraced by Registered Investment Advisors and Financial Advisors.
Let’s frame the four drivers of this asymmetric opportunity:
Time vs. PolicyThe endocannabinoid system (ECS) wasn’t discovered until the early 1990s, which helps explain why so few doctors have studied it. It has an important role for vertebrates in that it helps to regulate neurotransmissions to promote homeostasis, or physiological balance. And because cannabis research is extremely cumbersome due to legal restrictions, most people don’t understand the parallels between the compounds in the plant and those within people and pets.
Some of the cannabinoids found in cannabis are identical in action to the endocannabinoids that our bodies naturally produce. A growing number of scientists believe that over the last 100 years, as we transitioned from being hunters and gatherers to working at desk jobs and began ingesting processed food and trans-fats instead of organic food, the tone of our ECS has changed, which is believed to have contributed to the epidemic of unmet medical conditions.
Last summer’s FDA approval of GW Pharmaceutical’s (GWPH) Epidiolex® demonstrated medical efficacy for plant-based cannabinoids via full-spectrum CBD for certain childhood epileptic conditions. That’s just the beginning; GW is using a 1:1 CBD:THC compound in their ongoing brain cancer trials, and the immense therapeutic benefits of minor cannabinoids continue to emerge despite the current barriers to research.
Western medicine, which informs the stock market, will require clinical proof across numerous indications before accepting the premise that cannabinoid wellness has efficacious agility. This will take time but the stock market, as a forward-looking discounting mechanism, will begin to price-in this new reality before the medicine hits the shelves.
Price vs. Institutional DemandWe estimate revenues for US cannabis operators will exceed $5 billion this year and for the most part, US operators cannot access the banking system the same way other companies do. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell have both stressed the importance of solving this issue as banks continue to lobby for a resolution of the conflict between Federal and State laws.
When this happens, several dynamics will successively trigger. Wall Street will initiate coverage and institutions will accumulate equity exposure in US operators, with demand that will likely overwhelm current retail holders. US companies will also have access to debt financing as an alternative to dilutive equity offerings, which should help improve their balance sheets, and up-lists to US exchanges will provide exposure to a broader investor base.
Private equity will continue to play an important role for the emerging industry but we believe institutions will articulate most of their cannabis investments through publicly traded securities, which will allow for industry-standard reporting and regulation, as well as the ability to diversify and scale global exposure.
PerceptionFinancial market moves typically are characterized by three phases – denial, migration and panic –and there can be little doubt which phase we’re currently in, although we’ve clearly crept closer to the first cusp. Banking reform should usher in the migration, which could last several years, before the non-believers turn late-stage buyers for fear of missing out (panic).
The cannabis market will separate into several categories – consumer packaged goods, including beverages and nutraceuticals, industrial use-cases, such as plastic composites and hempcrete, and efficacy-driven solutions, or biotech—and that evolution will shift the collective perception from cannabis as a discretionary vice to one with a ubiquity of use-cases.
Corporate America is paying attention. Constellation Brands (STZ), the maker of Corona beer, has partnered with Canopy Growth Corporation (CGC) to create cannabis-based beverages, among other things, while Altria Group (MO) partnered with the Cronos Group (CRON). We expect to see a lot more M&A and would be surprised if big pharma doesn’t turn buyer, and soon.
LiquidityGlobal cannabis is currently estimated to be a $300 billion annual cash crop and if that were the total addressable market, it would be a solid opportunity. When we contemplate cannabis and hemp as ingredients for a wide array of end-products, however– from cosmetics to pet supplements to animal feed to medicine and clothing and beyond– we foresee a trillion dollars or more of global market capitalization in ten years’ time vs roughly $100 billion today.
The price action could mirror the dot.com bubble and bust, with a rising tide that lifts all boats before an eventual comeuppance that separates this cycle’s winners and sinners. Just like NASDAQ at the turn of the century, many (if not most) cannabis equities won’t make it to the other side of this secular ride as the industry shifts from front-end farming to the consumer-packaged goods, industrial use-cases and biosynthetic applications.
Companies that execute, however, will experience successes beyond what most people can possibly fathom. In the next few years, we expect to see the FAANG-ification of US cannabis operators, long-tail growth across an array of products and services, the onboarding of entire continents (Australia, Africa) and efficacy-driven solutions that solve an array of medical riddles.
As with any investment, discipline and rigor are required and diversification is advised across industry verticals and geographic regions to help offset stock-specific risk. But if you still view cannabis as a gateway drug or think about Cheech & Chong every time it comes up, it’s time to wake-up because generational opportunities abound for anyone willing to pay attention.
CB1 Capital Management has a position in GWPH, CGC, CRON