Thursday, February 16, 2023

Trouble for Marijuana Dispensaries? (The Folly of The Next Big Thing!)

When you price your product "high" you will get undercut by bootleggers.

No, this is not a photo of a jewelry store or high-end optician!

Suppose you went to a liquor store to get some lite beer for your friends and maybe a bottle of inexpensive gin to make Gin and Tonics for the wife.  You get there and it is a beautiful store - all nicely appointed with custom cabinets and countertops and employees in matching suits.  You look around and realize they have nothing but high-end liquor.

In the bourbon department, nothing less than $50 for a fifth.  All the Scotches are single-malt and a hundred bucks a bottle.  The gin they have are "artisanal" and the vodkas are all triple distilled and filtered high-end brand-names.  You go to the beer section and realize everything offered is an expensive microbrew in a funny bottle costing $10 (per bottle!).  Similarly, the wine section is staffed by a sommelier who looks down his nose at you when you ask if there is "anything cheaper" than a $250 bottle of red.

I mean, it is a classy place to be sure, and you can appreciate the quality of the goods - and wish you could afford them!  But this is out of your league, so you slowly walk away.  There have to be other options - and there are.  Discount liquor stores, grocery stores, even illegal moonshine (yes, it still exists today).  If the market was nothing but "high end" liquors, well, there would be a lot of moonshine to be had.

And thus is the problem for marijuana dispensaries.  I've been to a few, and some of them are like jewelry stores - with expensive glass display cases, staff wearing suits (for the men) or evening dresses (for the women) and small jars or containers of potent pot selling for pretty staggering sums.

There are others that are different, of course.  In Haines, Alaska, we went to a tiny place which was just one display case and a guy in the backroom who looked like Dr. Johnny Fever from WKRP.  He came out of the back room exhaling smoke.   But even then, the prices were pretty "high" if you'll pardon the pun.

As a result of these high prices, there is still a thriving "black market" for marijuana, even in States where it is legal.  And as a result, many marijuana dispensaries are struggling to get by.  Their plight isn't just expensive facilities, high staff wages (and huge staffs at many of them!) but also the unique situation they are in legally - often unable to deposit funds in bank accounts because the drug is still illegal at the Federal level.  Large sums of cash laying around mean that they have to hire security guards and often are robbed or burgled as a result.  It still is a risky business, even though it is legal.

Overall, the market overbuilt these fancy dispensaries and over-sold them as well, to investors.  An major "chain" of dispensaries, which touted it was going to be the "Apple store" of marijuana dispensaries, is now facing bankruptcy.   Investors rushed to invest in marijuana dispensaries, thinking this had to be "The Next Big Thing!" when in fact, it was just a thing - a commodity business with a lot of competition, legal and illegal, and a business of margins as any mercantile business usually is.

Does this mean the end of legal marijuana?  Only if DeSantis is elected President.   Yet how many MAGA stoners will actually vote for him?  More than you think.   But seriously, presuming marijuana remains legal in at least a few States, the business will continue.   Some dispensaries will go bankrupt, to be sure - whether bankruptcy laws will protect them remains to be seen (as a State Law claim, I guess it would work).  Unless they reorganize under Chapter 11, the dispensary may go bust, and some entrepreneur will buy the assets and start over again - this time without the staggering debt and overhead of a fancy building and appointments, perhaps.

Quite frankly, growing up as a stoner, I never saw the point of these fancy dispensaries.   Perhaps the new model can be a showroom with some hippie dude selling unmarked baggies of weed behind a prop dumpster.   That might be more authentic.

The insolvency of these high-end (pardon the pun) marijuana dispensaries illustrates the fallacy of trying to "get in on the ground floor!" of "The Next Big Thing!" as you will likely be wiped out as a small investor.

Just to recap, this is how the scheme works - with any "Next Big Thing!" investment hyped on the Internet.

First, someone comes up with an idea - it needn't be a good idea, either, but one that sounds good.  It could be something as stupid as delivering food, for example.  Just call it "tech" though!

Second, venture capitalists swoop in and fund the idea, taking 80% or more of the equity, leaving the remainder to the "founders".  The company is privately held at this point.

Third, the venture capitalists "loan" money to the company, because it has a negative cash-flow.  However, the interest payments on this debt insure the company will always have a negative cash-flow.

Fourth, they hype the crap out of the idea and then hype the crap out of the company.

Fifth, they do an IPO and sell stock - about 5% of the company, if that.  Stupid small retail investors throw trivial amounts of money at the stock - trivial to the venture capitalists, but dear to the small investor.  This props up the price of the stock, allowing the VC's to cash out - and sometimes even the founders  as well!

Sixth, the company flounders about for a few years, never making money, or if it does make money, never justifying the outrageous share price and P/E ratio.

Seventh, the company goes bankrupt in Chapter 11.  The shareholders are wiped out (share price =$0) and those small retail investors lose it all.  However, the loan debt held by the Venture Capitalists is converted to an equity interest (stock) and they now own the whole damn company!

Eighth, once the company is re-established, they go back to step four and cash out yet again.  In some instances, this has been done more than once - taking a company private, taking it public, going bankrupt, going private, and back public again.  The real winners are the people with the money.

As you can see, investing in "The Next Big Thing!" stocks is not only risky, it is foolhardy.   These sort of "investments" are sold based on hype and the desire by the small investor to "beat the market."  The market beats the crap out of the small investor.

There is no shortage of idiot small retail investors, either.  Consider this guy, who is supposedly a journalist but looks like a parody of a fedora-wearing "neck beard" incel.  Good Day, M'Lady!  This quote in the article jumped out at me and made me sad:

Frankly, beyond the fifty bucks I gambled away on bitcoin, I have no other investments. I'm not big on gambling. Since I don't have confidence in my ability to spot a sure thing, I've avoided investing in stocks and crypto altogether.
This is a middle-aged man admitting his net worth is essentially zero (perhaps negative) and that he has nothing saved for the future.  What is worse, is that he equates "investing" with "gambling" and I guess in this modern era, he might be justified in thinking that - if all he knew about investing was the hyped stocks on the Internet or on the financial channels.

The point of investing is not to try to "win" by beating the market, but to get a decent rate of return overall - hopefully one that beats the rate of inflation.  You can't do this by picking one stock or one commodity (the latter being a bad idea in general for small investors - commodities are best left to experts) by rather by investing in a plurality of things - diversifying - and staying the hell away from anything that sounds even remotely speculative.

It is not hard to spot the raw deals - when the carnival comes to town and the barker exhorts you to put all your money into one hyped stock (or commodity or crypto or whatever) it isn't hard to figure out it is a raw deal at 100 paces.  What is in it for the carnival barker?  Oh, right, he "wants to help people!"

What is sad about the article is the guy lost most of his money in his bitcoin "investment" and rather than point out the obvious - that throwing money at a speculative, volatile, "investment in nothing" is a bad idea, he tries to rationalize his losses by comparing them to other speculative investments, particularly in the tech sector (see steps 1-8 above).

It is sad, but a whole generation of young people are being sucked in by this siren song of get-rich-quick investing.  I guess they see this new generation of Billionaires and think, "They made it big overnight, by hardly doing anything!  Why can't I do the same?"   But what they fail to realize is that many of these Billionaires started out as Millionaires and thus the game was skewed in their favor.  What's more, their Billions (on paper) were the result of their stock prices (or crypto prices or whatever) being shot into the stratosphere because these clueless retail investors bought the hype and bought the stock.   It is a perfect feedback loop!

"I'm buying Tesla stock, because Elon Musk is a genius and this stock is going to go up, up, up!  The fact that he's the richest guy in the world proves he's a genius, so the stock must be a good buy!"   You see how the feedback loop works.  The stock went up because fanboys bought $500 worth at a time.  And over time, we see how that bubble deflated, too.

Today still, there are plebes and dweebs buying Gamestop or AMC stock because some guy on Reddit told them to.  Worse yet, they are buying "Puts" and "Calls" which obligate them to buy or sell a stock at a later date - which can often mean your $10 bet costs you $1000 down the road.

THAT is not "investing."   THAT is gambling!