Tencent tries to recover from $200bn antitrust slide

Setting out to prove it’s best placed to weather a storm of antitrust scrutiny.
Image: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Tencent is setting out to prove it’s best placed to weather a storm of antitrust scrutiny that’s wiped about $200 billion off the value of China’s largest company in a span of months.

Its results on Thursday should affirm the resilience of the world’s largest game-publishing business as the pandemic recedes, now buttressed by growth in newer arenas such as fintech and the cloud. Yet it’s struggled to claw back the market capitalization it’s shed since its January peak, right around the time Beijing began a clampdown on Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Ant Group Co. before moving on to rising star Meituan.

Tencent has largely escaped the hostilities for now — despite its ubiquitous WeChat app offering unrivaled insights into virtually every facet of Chinese life and an overwhelming share of the gaming, music and social media markets. But questions remain over eventual fallout from a campaign that’s aimed at curtailing the influence of China’s internet companies and, much as in the West, exposing alleged abuses of their power.

A good set of results should go a long way toward assuaging investors. The Shenzhen-based company is expected to deliver 24% revenue growth for the March quarter thanks to a strong payments and cloud services recovery, while gaming and other content continue to hook users. Nearly 96% of analysts tracking the stock on Bloomberg gave it a buy rating or equivalent, the highest ratio since Beijing kicked off its antitrust campaign in November. Its shares erased gains of as much as 1.3% to trade little changed Thursday.

“If there is no regulatory concern, Tencent is very attractive in terms of valuation,” said Julia Pan, a Shanghai-based analyst at UOB Kay Hian. “It’s a defensive play within the tech sector, since they don’t need to burn cash for their core businesses like Alibaba and Meituan.”

Here are a few things to watch when Tencent reports earnings after the bell in Hong Kong.

The elephant in the room

While Xi Jinping’s government has yet to single out Tencent in its antitrust drive, investors haven’t fully dismissed potential fallout for Pony Ma’s sprawling online empire.

Rivals like TikTok-owner ByteDance Ltd. argue WeChat is locking users inside its ecosystem by blocking links to external services. Tencent portfolio companies like Shixianghui and Yuanfudao have been penalized for unfair price tactics and other anti-competitive behaviors. Its music spinoff faces heightened scrutiny over exclusive dealings with record labels. And perhaps most alarmingly, Tencent’s fintech arm — the closest analog to Ant in China — is said to be next in line for increased supervision.

Executives will likely again seek to reassure investors. The company has always been cautious with fintech regulations and will stick with its normal practice of acquiring minority stakes in startups. “Compliance is our lifeline,” Tencent President Martin Lau told investors in March.

But Beijing’s scrutiny may yet show up in Tencent’s bottom line. Ad sales could take a hit if online tutoring startups — major marketers in China — decide to dial it down to stay on Beijing’s good side. A prudent approach to fintech could also mean growth shifts to vanilla payments rather than the more lucrative businesses of wealth management and lending. For now, Tencent’s fintech and cloud business is expected to grow 41% in the March quarter — the fastest in eight quarters — from a low base a year ago when Covid-19 emerged.

That evergreen cash cow

When China went into lockdown at the start of 2020, online games became one of the biggest beneficiaries of a stay-at-home entertainment boom. That’s why this time around, Tencent faces a tough comparison for year-over-year growth: a slower 16% sales increase projected for its bread-and-butter business. Still, mainstay games like Honor of Kings and PUBG Mobile are topping the charts for global player spending, despite formidable challengers like miHoYo’s Genshin Impact.

Tencent announced a pipeline of more than 40 new titles during its annual games showcase on Sunday. After a year of carving out slices of at least 31 gaming firms around the world, it’s now trying to churn out new mobile hits based on familiar content including Japanese manga series One Piece and Digimon.

“Tencent continues to face strong competition from large tech companies such as ByteDance and Alibaba, as well as medium-sized firms such as Lilith Games and miHoYo but is in no immediate danger of losing its market leading position,” game research firm Niko Partners wrote in a May 16 note.

Horse races

Longer term, investors should also pay attention to the competition.

Tencent is famous for its unforgiving culture of internal competition — often likened to a horse race because of its swift and exacting nature — where rival teams compete to develop similar products until one wins out. But it’s finally breaking down some internal walls, so as to better fight externally.

The social giant last month folded its mini-video app, video streaming platform and mobile store into a single business unit in a rare restructure. Ross Liang, the former head of the QQ social app, took over as new chief executive of Tencent Music Entertainment Group, a year after a similar leadership reshuffle at its literature arm.

All of this highlights Tencent’s effort to pull together resources to build a Walt Disney Co.-style franchise and recover lost ground from rivals like ByteDance, whose addictive apps have been chipping away at user screen time and advertising dollars. For one, creators on Tencent’s music apps will share short clips on WeChat’s fast-growing video accounts as in-house platforms work more closely together, Liang said in a post-earnings call on Tuesday.

Competition is also fierce in cloud services. The pandemic disrupted IT projects but the pace should have picked up last quarter as the world’s No. 2 economy rebounded. Tencent will be keen to make up lost ground in 2021. Huawei Technologies Co. overtook Tencent last year to become China’s No. 2 cloud infrastructure provider, with a market share of 16.3% versus Alibaba’s 35.1%, according to Gartner research.

© 2021 Bloomberg


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