Tencent sales grow at slowest since 2004 as crackdown hits

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Tencent’s revenue grew a slower-than-expected 13%, after China’s sweeping tech crackdown took a toll on businesses like gaming and advertising.

Sales rose to 142.4 billion yuan (R333 billion) for the three months ended September, missing the 145.4 billion yuan average forecast, according to a filing Thursday.

Growth decelerated for a sixth straight quarter and reached the slowest pace since Tencent went public in 2004. Net income was a better-than-expected 39.5 billion yuan after it booked gains from the disposals of some investments, though non-IFRS profit fell 2%, the first decline since Bloomberg began tracking the data in 2010.

Tencent’s third-quarter results - the first among China’s largest technology giants - offer a snapshot of the far-reaching impact of Beijing’s campaign at its height. The company’s outsized influence in the world’s No. 2 economy has left it vulnerable as government scrutiny quickly engulfed everything from finance to education and online entertainment. Among the deadliest blows were July’s tutoring purge that decimated a key source of ad revenue and a cap on kids’ gaming time announced the following month.

"Pressure on Tencent’s advertising growth may persist for the next few quarters," said Matthew Kanterman, Bloomberg Intelligence senior analyst. “Although online game sales held up well despite regulatory headwinds and new game releases add promise to 4Q and 2022 trends, softening ad trends could lead to a further downgrade to growth expectations.”

Online advertising rose a slower-than-expected 5%, in part because of weakness in the education, insurance and gaming sectors, Tencent said in its filing. It added that advertising pricing could remain soft for several quarters “due to macro challenges and regulations affecting certain key advertising sectors.”

China’s largest company said on Wednesday minors accounted for 0.7% of time spent on its games in China and 1.1% of domestic gross receipts in September, declining significantly from a year earlier. Domestic gaming revenue rose 5%, lagging the 20% jump in international gaming revenue.  

While stricter limits on the amount of time children can play video games have had a negligible impact on gaming revenue, regulators have also refrained from approving any new releases since July as they scrutinize applications more carefully. The slowdown has revived painful memories of a 10-month freeze on game monetization licenses in 2018, which helped to wipe $200 billion off Tencent’s market value at the time. 

The gaming curb has also likely hit Tencent’s ad revenue as compulsory ID checks designed to filter out minors kept adults from playing some games, said Nomura analysts led by Jialong Shi.

"This extra step has turned out to be detrimental to those Candy Crush type of casual games," they wrote in a note before the results.

"These casual games are not only ad spenders themselves, but also contribute ad inventories to the mobile ad networks run by big platforms like ByteDance and Tencent."

For now, Tencent’s enduring hits like Honor of Kings continue to be its biggest gaming cash cows as it seeks new growth drivers. Fully-owned Riot Games Inc. may offer the greatest potential: its long-anticipated League of Legends mobile game finally debuted in China last month and the franchise’s e-sports tournament and new anime series drew hundreds of millions of views for Tencent and its affiliates over the past weekend.

The fintech and business services segment continued to post the strongest growth, rising 30% in the quarter on rising commercial payment volumes, increased digitalization as well as the consolidation of car comparison website Bitauto. 

After kicking off a year ago, China’s tech crackdown has left several unresolved issues including data security, the restructuring of fintech operations, and the opening up of walled-off internet platforms. Tencent and arch-foe Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. have taken initial steps to open their platforms to each other’s services, while the country’s tech-industry overseer is said to be considering forcing WeChat to make its social articles displayable on search engines like Baidu Inc.’s, Bloomberg News reported last month.

Tencent made clear that it will comply with Beijing’s new regulations.

“We are proactively embracing the new regulatory environment which we believe should contribute to a more sustainable development path for the industry,” the company said near the top of its earnings release. “In the domestic games market, our industry-leading efforts in fully complying with new regulations significantly reduced minors’ game time and spending, fostering a healthier gameplay environment.”

The company is also making a deeper foray into enterprise software and advanced technologies. Last week, the WeChat owner pledged $3 billion worth of resources over the next three years to its cloud business partners and unveiled its first self-made chips for use cases like search and video-transcoding.

Shares of Tencent surged 4.2% on Wednesday before the results, paring losses for the year to 14%. 

Naspers and Prosus, which holds a 29% stake in Tencent, declined by 0.5% and 0.8% respectively by lunchtime on Wednesday.

- With assistance from Coco Liu and Vlad Savov.

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