(Bloomberg) — Sea Ltd.’s stunning 22% pop tacked on more than $900 million to the personal wealth of founder Forrest Li, a vindication for the Chinese-born internet tycoon who presided over the worst year in his company’s history.
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Southeast Asia’s largest internet firm racked up its biggest single-day gain in months after reporting a surprise profit on Tuesday — energizing investors who’d hoped the gaming and e-commerce giant would pull off one of the biggest turnaround efforts the region’s fledgling tech sector has ever witnessed.
That means Li is now worth about $5.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, putting him back on par with peers such as Kakao Corp.’s Brian Kim and Shein impresario Gu Xiaoqing. The entrepreneur has grown $1.8 billion wealthier this year after Sea fired thousands, froze salaries and pledged to rein in spending.
The initial optimism belies the scale of the task ahead for Li, a gaming enthusiast who in 2009 founded a company that’s come to symbolize Southeast Asia’s internet ascendancy. Despite Tuesday’s surge, growth has all but evaporated from just two years ago, when it was regularly notching triple-digit revenue gains during a pandemic-era online boom.
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At the time, investors piled into the company, which is backed by Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., briefly making it the world’s best-performing stock. Then came a post-Covid hangover, when fears of a global recession wiped out more than $160 billion of its value from a 2021 peak of more than $200 billion.
Much of the profit reported Tuesday came from brutal cost cuts — a more than $700 million reduction in marketing expenses alone — and on-paper gains from the way it accounted for debt and certain types of expenses. During a post-release conference call, several analysts questioned whether the company had a plan to rejuvenate growth — suggesting concerns about whether a pullback in spending might jeopardize the top line in the future.
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Sea still faces deep-pocketed competitors in all of its main businesses, from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Lazada to TikTok Shop in e-commerce and a slew of up-and-comers in digital finance. Revenue at Sea’s gaming unit fell 33% during the fourth quarter, suggesting consumers remain unwilling to spend on entertainment while basic living costs are soaring. And while its e-commerce division, underpinned by regional mall Shopee, grew revenue 32%, gross merchandise value climbed just over 7% on a constant currency basis.
For now, investors are celebrating Sea’s getting into the black — something it would have achieved even after stripping out the one-time gains.
Li, who’s vowed to forsake his salary until his company stabilizes, warned on Tuesday the macroeconomic environment remained murky and Sea was ready to adjust its approach if needed. But the billionaire — who years ago named himself after the eternally optimistic iconic movie character played by Tom Hanks — also expressed confidence of a turnabout in 2023 because of growing internet penetration across the region.
“It has not been an easy journey,” Li told analysts on Tuesday’s call. “We took the hard path, but we believe this is the right path to achieve long-term success.”
What Bloomberg Intelligence Says
Sea’s faster-than-expected improvement in cost measures and e-commerce and fintech monetization will likely enable it to break even for full-year 2023 as we expect, after swinging to a net profit in 4Q from a year-ago loss. Sea would still have made a profit even without a combined $150 million net effect from goodwill, debt and accrual-related items, thanks to a steep cut in marketing costs, which were 13.7% of 4Q sales vs. 4Q21’s 35%. This trend might continue and nudge Sea’s opex-to-sales ratio — 39.2% in 4Q vs. 3Q’s 54.6% — more in line with the 30-40% seen at peers. Shopee’s take rate reached a new record, as its market leadership drives more merchant participation in shipping and advertising services. This has flow-on effect on fintech as SeaMoney adoption rises among Shopee users.
– Nathan Naidu, analyst
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–With assistance from Pei Yi Mak and Cecile Vannucci.
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