Picture: BLOOMBERG/GIULIA MARCHI
Picture: BLOOMBERG/GIULIA MARCHI

Tencent Holdings, in which Naspers has a more-than 30% stake,  has delivered disappointing earnings and warned about a difficult advertising environment in 2020, voicing caution about how China’s first economic contraction in decades might affect its sprawling businesses.

China’s largest gaming and social media company reported lower than anticipated net income of 21.6-billion yuan ($3.1bn) in the December quarter. Overall costs swelled 20%, underscoring how Tencent is spending to acquire content and snag new users to fend off hard-charging rival ByteDance.

Tencent’s lacklustre results reinforced concern about the extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic will hurt its home market, following Alibaba Group’s warning that the coronavirus will deal a broad-based blow to the Chinese economy. Beijing released data on Monday that suggests the world’s second-largest economy may contract this quarter for the first time since 1989, denting the consumer and marketing spending Tencent relies on for revenue growth.

The “ads business is going through difficult times due to challenging macro-conditions and competition. At this moment, it is hard to predict whether the strong momentum from the game business is going to offset the others”, said John Choi, head of China internet research at Daiwa Capital Markets Hong Kong.

Shares in Prosus, the entity controlled by Naspers  that serves as a proxy for Tencent, dived more than 7% in Amsterdam.

Online gaming revenue grew 25% — the fastest growth of that business Tencent’s managed since the first quarter of 2018. The company has picked up millions of new gamers during the coronavirus pandemic, which erupted from Wuhan in January. Yet it’s uncertain if those players will stay, and less so if they’ll spend: in-game purchases for marquee titles such as Honor of Kings dwindled in recent weeks after China began to go back to work.

The topline “is driven by stronger growth in the online games segment, which bodes well as the company navigates virus headwind in the coming quarter”, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Vey-Sern Ling said.

On Wednesday, Tencent said the outbreak is holding back its fast-growing, cloud-computing business by forcing clients to postpone spending. Convincing carmakers, luxury goods purveyors and other industries to buy ads would also be particularly challenging in 2020, chief strategy officer James Mitchell warned. “While it’s a difficult environment overall for advertising in China, we believe we’re well positioned to continue growing.” 

Government approval

Tencent is also wrestling with industry-specific issues. It must count on aging cash cows Honor of Kings and Peacekeeper Elite to sustain its pace of growth while it awaits Chinese government approval — a process that’s become much stricter and slower — for the commercial launch of potential smash hits such as Call of Duty Mobile domestically.

This week, the company finally kicked off sales of two popular Mario games for the Nintendo Switch console in China after getting the green light. Tencent’s also testing a Twitter-style video and content feed on its ubiquitous WeChat app to win back users from ByteDance.

”Tencent’s fight against gravity will continue until it gets positive signals from China’s gaming regulators,” said Michael Norris, Shanghai-based analyst with AgencyChina. “Mobile titles such as Dungeon & Fighter, League of Legends and Call of Duty Mobile could be a big boon for Tencent in 2020.”

Bloomberg