UPDATE: AWhite House official confirmed to the LA Times that the announcement, at this stage, will not affect Tencent shareholdings of companiesand clarified that the order only refers to transactions ‘related to’ WeChat. How tight or narrow that definition will prove to be is another matter. This is a case of watch this space but whatever path the order eventually takes when put in action 45 days from now, Tencent’s global entertainment investment strategy has at the absolute least been put on a warning. The potential repercussions remain vast.
Donald Trump just signed a presidential order prohibiting any company subject to US jurisdiction from “any transactions” with Tencent Holdings Limited or “any subsidiary of” Tencent. This will have just put Universal Music, Warner Music and Spotify into emergency planning mode, not to mention Snap Inc, Epic Games, Blizzard Entertainment, AMC cinema and countless other entertainment companies that have taken Tencent investment. What had looked like a mischievously smart global strategy, giving Tencent back-door reach and influence over the Western entertainment business has just been dealt a potentially fatal blow by the stroke of the US president’s pen.
Donald Trump’s campaign against Bytedance and TikTok has had centre-stage media coverage (which of course has benefits during an election year) but by now pulling Tencent into the bitter dispute he may have (though probably inadvertently) started a domino effect that could cause major disruption to the US entertainment world. The wording of the presidential executive order (full text here) while aimed primarily at WeChat is incredibly vague and broad in reach, far beyond the WeChat app. While a White House official has since suggested the order is narrower in scope than the order suggests, the order says Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until the order comes into effect in 45 days time.
There is a possibility that the scope of the order will be more tightly defined when it comes into effect, which will be in late September, just in time for peak presidential election campaigning. If it is broad in scope then it will likely be subject to legal challenges but they are lengthy affairs and going to legal war against a president that takes things very personally, especially during an election, is going to get messy. The kind of messy that already jittery stick markets do not like.
So, the near term scenario for UMG, WMG and Spotify is that they may all have to sever ties with Tencent (including Tencent Music Entertainment as it is a Tencent subsidiary) and then maybe even have to ensure Tencent divests its shareholdings (though that of course would require “transactions” – see how messy this is going to be). After that, the big repercussions for music could kick in. Tencent has been willing to pay a premium for the investments it has made in US based music companies. In doing so it has helped push up the overall value of music assets. Tencent’s sudden (potentially permanent) withdrawal from the market at a time when the global economy is entering a recession, could have long term impact. And in principle, any US label, publisher or CMO licensing music to Chinese streaming services via Tencent could easily be considered ‘transactions’.
Trump’s campaign against TikTok, while controversial, is relatively narrow in scope for the West, but Tencent represents an entirely different scale. Years of building its Western investments mean that Tencent’s tentacles of commercial interest stretch throughout the Western entertainment world. To date, Tencent has played a relatively passive role in its invested companies, if Tencent decides to go down fighting, that may be about to change. Whether it does so or simply deflates the music investment market by vacating it, the potential ramifications of Trump’s order for US based entertainment companies are huge.