DELHI As the credit crunch on Wall Street sent dominoes toppling around the globe, Tata Consultancy Services, India's largest software-services company, started tightening its belt. Travel was restricted, electricity consumption was to be reduced, and the company considered removing Microsoft (MSFT) Office from its PCs and replacing it with free open-source alternatives, employees say.
India's seemingly unstoppable outsourcing industry is grappling with the woes of the financial firms that make up as much as half of revenues for some players. "How this plays out, who knows?" says Pramod Bhasin, CEO of Genpact, the world's largest business process outsourcing company. Although he's optimistic, he says: "The ability to predict has gone away."
Outsourcing companies have already pulled back on new office space and leases, according to Knight Frank India, a property consultant. "Their level of concern has gone up dramatically in the past few weeks with their top-tier customers vanishing right before their eyes," says John McCarthy, a Forrester Research (FORR) analyst who traveled to India twice in September to meet with jittery Indian players. "Anyone who says they aren't worried is probably lying."
In the past two months some of the biggest names in U.S. finance have gone under. Vanishing with them is the kind of work Indian software professionals have long excelled at—projects requiring mountains of coding and individual attention. In the first half of 2007, financial companies around the world handed out at least 48 major outsourcing contracts with a total value well in excess of $5.5 billion, reports researcher ValueNotes. The first half of this year saw just eight such contracts with a total reported value of $767 million. "A lot of companies are putting on a brave face and saying this is just a temporary phase," says ValueNotes CEO Arun Jethmalani. "But how temporary is temporary?"
The estimated hit to India's outsourcers? As much as 8% of total revenue could vanish, Forrester predicts, as information technology spending in financial services shrinks by 15% to 20% over the next year. India's top five info tech and outsourcing companies saw slower growth in the first quarter, and their stocks have taken a beating. TCS's annual profit growth slowed to 7%, down from 36% in 2007. The company declined to comment for this story. Infosys Technologies has warned that it probably won't see a rise in profit this year but had no further comment. Satyam Computer (SAY), the No. 4 software service provider, says it has contracts with Lehman Brothers, AIG (AIG), and Merrill Lynch (MER). Those are "minuscule parts" of Satyam's $2.7 billion in annual revenues, says Chief Financial Officer V. Srinivas. "But that doesn't mean there won't be an impact in the future," Srinivas says. "We would be kidding ourselves if we thought that."
Optimists predict the downturn will be short. They say revenues will bounce back when American business decides to be more efficient, resulting in more outsourced work. One rosy estimate, by consultancy Everest Group, projects that cost-cutting spurred by the crisis will result in a 40% to 50% increase in financial-service outsourcing over the next five years.
The Indians, though, will continue to face increased competition for those jobs. Global players such as IBM (IBM), Accenture (ACN), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) have grown deep roots on the subcontinent. "The crisis will make [the Indians] face the reality of doing global business," says Siddharth A. Pai, managing director of TPI, a consultant that helps companies manage outsourcing contracts. "They haven't seen the trough yet."