For several weeks last spring, it looked like India's information technology outsourcing giants were about to be swamped by the political tsunami that swept the left-leaning Congress Party into power. Fearing a reversal of long-standing pro-development policies, investors pulled billions of rupees out of the Bombay stock market, sending the widely watched BSE 100 index plunging more than 21%.
In response, U.S.-based investors pulled the plug on three of the largest so-called offshore outsourcers traded on Wall Street, knocking American depositary shares of Wipro (WIT) - Get Report, Infosys Technologies (INFY) - Get Report and Satyam Computer (SAY) down about 16%.
Six months later, the picture couldn't have changed more. The BSE has rebounded by 31%, and the outsourcers have soared far above their May 17 trough: Infosys by 94%, Wipro by 85% and Satyam by 66%.
It Was a Very Good Half-Year
What brought about the run-up? Investors began to realize that the Congress Party, which actually initiated economic reforms in 1991, and its communist allies are very pro-development, as long as those policies don't hurt labor, said Rafiq Dossani of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. "They strongly support tax benefits and other incentives
for the outsourcers because they increase employment. Likewise, they are in favor of multinationals investing in new companies that don't affect state-owned sectors such as airlines," he said.
Meanwhile, demand for offshore expertise has continued to rise, and increased productivity has easily offset a modest rise in wages. The result: big boosts to top- and bottom-line performance.
In the quarter ended in September, Infosys posted a 49% increase in profit, its largest quarterly jump in three years, and revenue was up 52% from a year earlier. Second-quarter earnings for Wipro were up 79% on sales that increased by 44%. And driven largely by increased business from
, Satyam said its profit in the quarter was up 28% as revenue increased by 42%.
Although India has a huge educated work force, graduating about 800,000 engineers a year, there has been some upward pressure on wages as demand for labor increases. In the software industry, salaries have jumped by as much as 20% (less for call-center workers), said Stanford's Dossani.
Even so, operating margins have not suffered significantly, said Ashish Thadhani, who follows offshoring for Gilford Securities. Wipro, for example, posted an operating margin of 18.7% for fiscal 2004, and is expected to increase that to 20.7% in fiscal 2005.
Along with better productivity, the companies have defended their margins by passing some of the increased costs on to customers. "A boost of 1% or 2% in costs is essentially insignificant to a customer, but is a huge deal to Wipro and others," Thadhani said.
All three companies gave solid guidance, and now that the U.S. election is over, whatever fears there were that a new administration might penalize companies sending work overseas have vanished. "Those concerns were never enormous, but there probably was some business that was delayed," said analyst Sameer Nadkarni of WR Hambrecht.
Infosys recently told investors to expect sales to grow 46% or 47% this year and for profits to increase by 45%. Wipro does not give annual guidance, but Hambrecht's Nadkarni is expecting 38% revenue growth. "These are conservative companies," he said, "and I think their guidance is conservative. And given that increase in fundamentals, I don't think these companies are overvalued." (Hambrecht does not have an investment banking relationship with the companies mentioned in this story.)
Similarly, Thadhani said, "Yes, they have had a terrific run, and maybe there is some need to pause and consolidate gains. But fundamentals will continue to improve as we head into next year," he said.
Thadhani saw the "unprecedented hiring burst in the Indian IT sector" in the September quarter as a sign of increased confidence in future business by the outsourcers. Wipro, for example, boosted its workforce by 10%, or 5,500 new employees, in the quarter.
Still, others feel the stocks are getting too rich for comfort. "These are expensive companies and you need to be cautious," said Mark Headley, president of Matthews International Capital. Headley notes that the premium paid for depositary shares in the U.S. (vs. "native" shares in India) is very steep.
Infosys, he said, is currently trading at a 59% premium over Indian shares, compared with an average premium of about 54%, while Wipro's premium is about 54%, compared with its usual 33%. "When you get to these valuations, any negative surprise is a challenge," said Headley, whose company invests directly in India, but does not hold shares of the outsourcers in the U.S.
Headley's warning is well-taken. But no immediate evidence exists that the outsourcing tide is ready to ebb.