Tencent hunts for growth after China threat erases $170 billion

China’s top watchdogs have stepped up oversight of the country’s most valuable company, scrutinizing everything from Tencent’s insights into the online behavior of a billion-plus people to an investment portfolio that spans hundreds of startups.

| Updated on: Mar 23 2021, 22:59 IST
Tencent official
Tencent official (Tencent)
Tencent official
Tencent official (Tencent)

Beijing's clampdown on its most powerful internet firms is clouding the prospects for Tencent Holdings Ltd. and its $120 billion financial services operation just as it's casting around for new sources of growth.

China's top watchdogs have stepped up oversight of the country's most valuable company, scrutinizing everything from Tencent's insights into the online behavior of a billion-plus people to an investment portfolio that spans hundreds of startups. Regulators are said to be considering forcing Tencent to overhaul a promising fintech division, folding the operation into a holding company in much the same way they're demanding of Jack Ma's Ant Group Co.

The uncertain outcome of that wide-ranging effort will overshadow Tencent's giant gaming arm when it reports quarterly earnings Wednesday. Billionaire founder Pony Ma and his lieutenants face questions on Beijing's intentions and how it could go about revamping China's largest online banking and lending operation after Ant's. The threat of a probe has already wiped $170 billion off the company's value since a January peak.

“Tencent is all too familiar with the specter of additional regulation over its gaming business,” said Michael Norris, research manager at Shanghai-based consultancy AgencyChina. “Investors may query the extent to which anti-monopoly scrutiny may inhibit Tencent's investment activities, in gaming or other verticals.”

In the short run, investors are betting on another robust showing from a company whose profit has surpassed expectations in three of the past four quarters. Things to watch out for Wednesday include:

-Plans for a makeover. Restructuring the fintech outfit could be far more complicated than with Ant. Unlike Jack Ma's company -- which runs its fintech operation through a single entity -- Tencent's payments, money management and lending services are scattered across different units. All rely on WeChat, the avenue through which Tencent reaches users and markets products, including games from Honor of Kings to League of Legends.

-Comments on a crackdown on multiple fronts. China's antitrust watchdog has penalized Tencent and its peers for not seeking approval for previous investments and acquisitions. Lawmakers again brought up gaming addiction among youths during a gathering of top Chinese leaders in Beijing in March. And Tencent awaits approval to complete an envisioned merger of game streaming giants Huya and DouYu, which will create a sector leader.

-The bottom line. The company is projected to post 52% net income growth, the second fastest in almost three years. Investors will be keen to see Tencent keep a lid on expenses while battling Alibaba and Baidu Inc. in cash-guzzling arenas like video streaming.

-Online gaming momentum. Tencent must churn out the hits to sustain a pace of growth that surpassed 45% in the September quarter. Latest smash Moonlight Blade should have helped over the holidays but future titles remain key: it has 43 new games slated for 2021, said Binnie Wong, an analyst at HSBC.

-Advertising and payments. Some analysts single those out as the two most important drivers for future growth, given Tencent avoids plying users with ads and has yet to fully monetize WeChat Pay. China's dominant messaging service was projected to host $240 billion worth of transactions for 400 million daily users of its lite apps in 2020.

-Going global. It's shown progress abroad with the mobile versions of Call of Duty and PUBG.

-Fintech. Encompassing cloud computing, the fintech and business division generated $4.8 billion in revenue for the September quarter, more than a quarter of total sales.

It's the finance operation -- worth between $105 billion to $120 billion according to Bernstein estimates -- that may draw immediate scrutiny. China in November launched an precedented campaign to rein in its largest corporations, focusing first on the twin pillars of Jack Ma's empire, Ant and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Tencent executives were quick to pledge to work with regulators and maintain a prudent finance strategy. But this month, Xi Jinping warned he will go after “platform” companies that amass data and market power, a sign the internet crackdown is widening.

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says

Tencent's operations face a thicket of risks and unknowns as its fintech business comes under scrutiny from China's financial regulators, as reported by Bloomberg News. Fintech is neither Tencent's fastest-growing nor its most profitable business, minimizing the immediate financial impact, yet the turn of events may signal an era of more rigorous regulatory oversight, with strong echoes of Alibaba's shifting fortunes.

- Vey-Sern Ling and Tiffany Tam, analysts

The most visible of Tencent's money services is WeChat Pay, linked inextricably with the eponymous messaging service and the payment method of choice on ride-hailing platform Didi Chuxing and food deliverer Meituan. But like Ant, it also runs services that challenge the state-run banking sector.

The fintech business had revenue of about 84 billion yuan in 2019, about 70% of Ant's sales for the year. Its Corporate Development Group, which oversees newer initiatives, runs wealth management including mutual fund investment options offered via WeChat and QQ, Tencent's other social hit.

One potentially thorny area is the so-called micro-lending business operated by 30%-owned WeBank. Under requirements introduced when Beijing scrapped Ant's IPO, online lenders must keep 30% of all loans on its own books rather than with partners such as banks. While Tencent now only acts as a pipeline instead of a co-lender, and rules are still unclear, it could have to inject capital if it must co-finance 30% of all funding. Management however has said the micro-lending rules shouldn't impact Tencent's flagship Weilidai consumer product.

“Tencent's regulatory risk mainly results from its ‘bigness',” Bernstein analysts including Robin Zhu said in a March 23 note. But its “competitive position in its main businesses remain very solid.”

Written by Zheping Huang and Lulu Yilun Chen.

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First Published Date: 23 Mar, 22:59 IST