Tencent unveils first-ever sales fall, job cuts as economy sinks

Tencent Holdings logged its first-ever revenue decline after its workforce shrank almost 5%, underscoring the extent to which China’s worsening economy is hurting its biggest corporations.

The country’s most valuable company recorded its first quarterly drop in staffing since 2014, as layoffs rippling through the global tech sector finally hit the WeChat operator. Revenue fell a deeper-than-projected 3% to 134 billion yuan ($19.8 billion) while net income also missed estimates, plunging 56% to 18.6 billion yuan in the June quarter.

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Tencent is grappling with a deepening downturn in the world’s No 2 economy, the product of a property slump and ad-hoc coronavirus lockdowns from Shanghai to Shenzhen. The uncertainty is wreaking havoc on businesses from advertising to cloud computing and gaming. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. this month reported its first quarterly revenue drop on record, although the results were better than feared.

Despite the pressures, there were some positive indicators. Online advertising revenue slipped a record 18% in the quarter, but that was better than analysts feared. And adjusted net income of 28.1 billion yuan was about 15% above expectations. Shares in Prosus NV, one of Tencent’s biggest backers, shed more than 1% in Europe.

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“Tencent has tightened its belt as the Chinese tech industry embraces a downturn,” said Willer Chen, an analyst at Forsyth Barr Asia Ltd. “The company’s performance now largely depends on its progress on cost control and operation optimisation.”

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Even before the macroeconomic turbulence, China’s giant internet industry had resigned itself to a new era of sedate growth after a decade of free-wheeling expansion. Companies like Tencent are focusing on profitability over the market-grab of years past, after a sweeping government crackdown wiped more than $1 trillion off their combined market value in 2021.

Beijing remains a headache for Tencent. Although regulators resumed approving games in April after a months-long hiatus intended to curb addiction, China’s premier developer has yet to win a nod for a single title this year. For now, it’s counting on aging cash cows like Honor of Kings to spur its most lucrative business, while fighting newer hits like Genshin Impact and Diablo Immortal. On Wednesday, Tencent said its Chinese gaming business was facing “transitional challenges” including dwindling user spending.

The company, which once relied on a network of investments spanning hundreds of firms to create opportunities and new markets, has also since last year signaled it will begin selling down stakes in major Chinese internet investee from e-commerce giant JD.com Inc. two Meituan. That may help appease Beijing, which has sought to curb the influence that Tencent and Alibaba wield over the Chinese internet economy through backing hundreds of startups and tech firms.

Given the new realities, Tencent executives have said that international games, cloud software and WeChat video will be their major strategic priorities. The TikTok-style feed inside Tencent’s super-app is the company’s latest hope of countering ByteDance Ltd., which is increasingly luring away users and marketing dollars.

“Tencent is delivering on what management described as a ‘new industry paradigm’ two quarters ago — where growth slows but margins improve,” said Vey-Sern Ling, an analyst at Union Bancaire Privee. “Shifting away from reckless expansion and aggressive marketing should be taken positively for the industry as a whole.”

The fintech and business services segment — which includes cloud computing — is now Tencent’s fastest growth engine. But cloud revenue suffered a mild decline this year after the company cut loss-making contracts and ventured into services beyond infrastructure.

Just like Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta Platforms Inc., Tencent is staking its claim of a possible future of the virtual realm of the metaverse. The Chinese company has revamped its aging social app QQ with customizable 3D avatars and Unreal Engine graphics, and is hiring developers to make open-world titles. But such endeavours, along with a steady pace of investment in overseas game studios, could pressure margins before they come to fruition.

“During the second quarter, we actively exited non-core businesses, tightened our marketing spending, and trimmed operating expenses, enabling us to sequentially increase our non-IFRS earnings, despite difficult revenue conditions,” Tencent co-founder Pony Ma said in a statement. That “should position us for revenue growth as China’s economy expands.”

© 2022 Bloomberg

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