(Bloomberg) — Turns out even the most compliant Chinese billionaires aren’t immune to the regulatory onslaught sweeping the world’s second-largest economy.
In a twist that has upended conventional wisdom on the political pecking order of China’s business elite, Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s mild-mannered boss, Pony Ma, has lost more paper wealth over the past nine months than Jack Ma, the combative co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Ant Group Co.
The reversal underscores how rapidly Beijing’s crackdown has expanded since authorities scuttled Ant’s initial public offering on Nov. 3. What initially looked like a targeted campaign against China’s most outspoken tech tycoon has since spread to nearly every corner of the industry and beyond, as regulators de-emphasize unfettered growth in favor of other priorities such as data security, financial stability and reduced inequality.
Throughout most of China’s nine-month campaign to reign in big tech, Tencent had appeared to fare much better than its arch-nemesis, helped in part by Pony’s reputation for staying out of the limelight. While Alibaba had to cough up a record $2.8 billion in antitrust penalties, regulators only slapped token fines on Tencent for not seeking approval during past acquisitions and investments. Its music arm was recently ordered to give up exclusive streaming rights, though it escaped the doomsday scenario of a breakup of the business.
But a damning state news report Tuesday has turned the tables. Tencent shares posted their biggest intraday decline in a decade after a Xinhua-affiliated newspaper took aim at the company’s key gaming business, fueling speculation it could become the next target of Beijing’s crackdown. The rout left the company, whose market capitalization briefly neared $1 trillion earlier this year, with a value of $550.5 billion.
Pony’s fortune has dropped by almost $14 billion since the Ant IPO was suspended in November, falling to $45.8 billion on Tuesday, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He now ranks third on the China rich list behind Jack, who has a net worth of $47.8 billion.
While state media toned down their language on gaming Wednesday, helping fuel a more than 5% rebound in Tencent, the stock is still 17% lower for the year. The outlook will depend in large part on what comes next from regulators, who shocked investors late last month with a clampdown on tutoring companies that will force many of them to become non-profits.
Tencent is already moving to assuage Beijing, pledging to further limit play time for minors and forbid in-game purchases for the youngest players. The company also broached the possibility of the industry banning games altogether for those under the age of 12.
(Updates with details on regulatory actions in fourth paragraph)
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