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India's IT outsourcers face increasing costs
Joe Leahy in Mumbai | December 28, 2007
India's information technology outsourcing sector is heading for crunch time next year, as a rising currency and increasing wage and real estate costs force the industry to rethink how it does business.
Multinationals continue to view the country as one of the most viable outsourcing destinations, but competitive pressures are making other countries look attractive.
Vineet Nayyar, chief executive of Tech Mahindra [Get Quote], described as "horrible" the impact on IT margins of a 12 per cent appreciation of the rupee against the dollar this year.
"All your emerging sectors are going to have major problems because of the currency adjustment," Mr Nayyar said.
India's IT outsourcing companies have been among the worst performing on the stock market this year. The sector has underperformed the MSCI India index by 47 per cent.
Much of the negative sentiment concerns the stronger rupee, which hit Rs39.16 against the dollar last month, its strongest level since March 1998.
Indian IT outsourcing companies earn most of their revenue in foreign currencies, particularly dollars, but they incur most of their costs in rupees.
The leading companies, such as Infosys Technologies [Get Quote] and Tata Consultancy Services [Get Quote], have so far largely maintained their margins. Measures they have used to keep margins up include moving more work onshore and hiring cheaper graduates from disciplines other than engineering. They have also employed hedging.
Analysts believe, however, that a longer-term shift in strategy is necessary if India's IT companies are to prevent more work going overseas to emerging centres such as Vietnam, China and Brazil.
Gartner, the research group, in a study of outsourcing destinations, found that India accounted for 28 per cent of the estimated workforce available globally for offshore work. That makes the country the largest such labour pool in the world.
But the study also found that costs were rising fast. Salaries are climbing an average 14.5 per cent a year, almost double the rate in China and the Philippines, and the rate of attrition is 20 per cent to 25 per cent.
"The attrition [rate] leads to the challenge of consistency and therefore of quality for buyers of these services," said Ian Marriott, research vice-president at Gartner. "And so the whole appeal of India is starting to just lose a little bit of the gloss.
"It's still very appealing for a whole variety of reasons but it's starting to get people thinking: should we investigate other locations as well, probably not as an alternative necessarily but in addition to India."
Indian companies needed to move away from thinking that more demand meant more hiring and extracting greater productivity out of existing workforces, Mr Marriott said.
While the larger companies were also trying to become more global and were setting up centres in other offshoring locations, this was not an option for the small and medium-sized outsourcers, he said.
These smaller companies had to become more specialised. "They've got to be very niche by design and very focused on specific markets, specific services, specific kinds of customers," Mr Marriott said.