India's Madoff? Satyam Scandal Rocks Outsourcing Industry

B. Ramalinga Raju resigned on Jan. 7, 2009, admitting the firm had falsified accounts and assets and inflated its profits over several years. Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

On the morning of Jan. 7, Ramalingam Raju, the chairman of troubled Indian IT outsourcing company Satyam Computer Services (SAY), sent a startling letter to his board and the Securities & Exchange Board of India. Raju acknowledged his culpability in hiding news that he had inflated the amount of cash on the balance sheet of India's fourth-largest IT company by nearly $1 billion, incurred a liability of $253 million on funds arranged by him personally, and overstated Satyam's September 2008 quarterly revenues by 76% and profits by 97%. After submitting his resignation, Raju ended his letter by apologizing for his inability to close what began as a "marginal gap between operating profits and the one reflected in the books of accounts" but grew unmanageable. "I am now prepared to subject myself to the laws of the land and face the consequences thereof," he wrote.

Industry executives are desperately trying to contain the fallout. "The decline in governance and institutions represents a serious challenge to India," says Rajeev Chandrashekhar, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Wipro Technologies () Chief Financial Officer , went on TV to say that Satyam's actions should not infect the entire Indian IT industry. And Mohandas Pai, head of human resources at Infosys () and the company's former chief financial officer, argued Satyam's behavior is atypical. "We wish the regulators will investigate and punish the guilty," he says. "But this is not representative of our industry." John McCarthy, vice-president of Forrester Research, allays some fears. "I look at Satyam as an isolated case, and don't think the developments would have any impact upon India's No. 1 position as an offshore location." In India, the Raju family's non-IT activities had already been viewed with some suspicion, in particular a free emergency ambulance service Raju began in Hyderabad, where Satyam is based. Last year, public-interest activists filed a petition challenging the lack of transparency and arbitrariness in the award of ambulance-services contracts in 12 Indian states—all of which had been awarded to Raju's operation. In November the Supreme Court of India questioned the contracts and demanded an explanation, which could result in the contracts being canceled. Now, just a day later, Satyam's value has plummeted. Tech Mahindra made a public statement that it would not be interested in acquiring Satyam "in the current environment." CLSA India valued the company, minus its debt, at $600 million. "What happens to Satyam now?" asked Mumbai-based research firm in a note on Jan. 7. "With Satyam's operations failing to generate the required amount of cash, we believe that it will be impossible for the company to continue its operations." Satyam clients are likely to shift to other companies, First Global predicted, as Satyam's stock price continues to fall.

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