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There is no doubt that over the last decade, India fortified its rule over the shared services and outsourcing (SSO) sector. Access to low-wage yet skilled workers allowed local global technology services giants Infosys (INFY), Tata Consultancy Services (TACSF), and Wipro (WIT) to employ tens of thousands of Indians to do work for such multinational corporate clients as Bank of America (BAC), Microsoft (MSFT), and Ericsson (ERIC).
But a recent study by Frost & Sullivan consolidates the idea that India’s outsourcing has already peaked, and there are a number of factors to blame:
The Rupee Riddle. Earlier this year, the Indian rupee appreciated 8.4% against the U.S. dollar and touched 41.14 to the dollar, its highest rate in nine years. A significant reason for concern for the outsourcing sector, the upward value of the rupee continues to put a squeeze on earnings. By April, 2007, it had cut margins by about 2.5 percentage points.
Cost (In)Efficiency. Companies looking to outsource have long seen India as their most cost-efficient vehicle. But with wage inflation running 15% to 25% per year, India can no longer use the siren song of its labor being the cheapest. Competitors like China can offer their services at a lower cost, while firms like Infosys are stuck recruiting from outside the country, because the comparable Indian staff is growing too expensive.
That Age-Old Infrastructure. As much as the economy continues to boom, how long can it sustain its position when IT operations spend considerably on backup systems to fight regular blackouts? And the 300,000 engineering students who graduate each year may be short of the level needed to support modernization of infrastructure and industry growth. (Not to mention that the peculiarly accented “Doug Smith” on the computer help desk is a little too hard for U.S. callers to comprehend.)
So if you assume you’re being rerouted by tech support to a call center in Bangalore, guess again. It seems India’s grasp on the SSO market is at long-term risk, and it just so happens that your call might be answered by someone in Shanghai.
Notwithstanding the occasional news stories about companies returning work earlier offshored to India, the logic behind offshoring and its financial impact (both on outsourcing firms operating in India and their American clients) remains intact. First, the logic: A fresh engineer costs $8,000, including benefits, on average in Bangalore. Even a “Google-quality” engineer, presumably equivalent to the best Google can hire anywhere (in fact, Google offers its India recruits the option of working in Silicon Valley if they so desire) costs $30,000. These wages are much lower than in the U.S. and will remain that way for at least a decade—especially if the ambitious graduation targets of Indian education policymakers are realized.
Of course, there are problems in doing work long distance: Coordinating the work of global teams is costlier than coordinating such work locally. The intellectual property issues could be important. But offshoring is now tried and tested enough, and large corporations are deeply committed to it.
By 2010, many large multinational corporations like IBM (IBM) will have their largest workforces in India. This is creating a relatively rich ecosystem in a number of Indian cities, especially Bangalore.
Already, for a number of these firms, their Indian operations are being declared global centers of excellence, whose value goes well beyond just cost savings. Undoubtedly, some smaller firms have faced high initial costs, but even they, particularly the technology firms of Silicon Valley, have committed to Indian operations. Firms such as Infinera (INFNO) and HelloSoft have substantial Indian operations that are critical to their success. For them to retreat would require a major reorientation of their business strategy.
The appreciating rupee will, like rising wages, affect offshoring decisions. However, the Indian system integrators such as TCS, Infosys, and Wipro, which are also being squeezed by costs, have experienced profits rising at about 35% a year for the past decade and enjoy margins in excess of 20%. This provides ample room to absorb rising costs.
There can be little doubt that the Indian ecosystem is maturing. However, the growth of offshoring to India has not peaked.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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