Is Offshore IT's Rapid Growth Story Over?

Includes: ACN, CTSH, INFY
by: William Trent, CFA

Cognizant's (NASDAQ:CTSH) recent slowdown in net hiring has taken the wind out of its sails, and we have said several times that the biggest threat to the offshore IT providers is sustaining the employee growth that will be needed to sustain revenue growth - especially given the industry's high employee turnover rates.

With several of the earnings reports from leading IT outsourcers and offshorers now in, we thought it an opportune time to peruse the conference call transcripts for clues.

First off, it is clear that demand remains strong.

George Price - Stifel Nicolaus

Where are we in terms of headcount in India? And then targets going forward by the end of the fiscal year?

Bill Green

I think I mentioned that we were in the mid-50s, in terms of total numbers. I think we were at 35,000 or targeting 35,000 by the end of the fiscal year. You know, the growth just continues, George, to expand there now with the management consulting expansion. We're just going to see more substantive growth there. So we're still on-target to hit the end of the fiscal year number that we've been throwing around.

(Excerpt from full ACN conference call transcript)

However, the demand is also putting pressure on wages.

We are increasing the offshore wages by somewhere between 13% to 15% and onsite wages for people outside India by 5% to 6%.

Overall, the impact on the margins because of the wage increases is something around 300 basis points, and we are assuming the rupee/dollar rate at 43.10. The average for fiscal '07 was 45. So, that could have an impact of something around 150 to 160 basis points on the margin.

(Excerpt from full INFY conference call transcript)

Margins are under pressure due to a rising rupee as well.

Now, this quarter our operating margin dropped by 100 basis points. This is primarily on account of rupee appreciation. But as we look forward, we have given guidance where we expect the profitability to be maintained at the same percentage level next year.

(Excerpt from full INFY conference call transcript)

Cognizant even claims that the slower hiring pace is just to protect margins:

And in the end, why are we slowing down hiring, because we want to stay within our target margin range, which we feel we can do without disrupting the business at all, because we are running such a low utilization today.

(Excerpt from full CTSH conference call transcript)

This explanation, however, doesn't hold water with us. For one thing, low utilization has been the norm as the companies bring hires through the training program and prepare for expected turnover. Whether the margin impact is due to rising wages, currency issues or anything else is not the point as they are all symptoms of competition for workers. Instead, the point is whether the employees will add productivity or will allow revenue to grow only in line with employee count. We don't see why it would be any more important to protect margin now than it would have been a year ago. To some extent it appears Infosys agrees.

S. D. Shibulal

Well, a higher utilization actually creates stress within the system because it's like having a manufacturing plant and you cannot have people come just in time all the time. So, it made sense for us to have some amount of strategic bench, especially when you are bidding for large deals. And when large deals come into picture, there is one-time investment of people acquired. And today, on an average, every quarter we close some large deals, some multimillion dollar multiyear deal gets closed in every quarter.

So, it was important for us to build a strategic bench. At the same time, at this point in time, we have the fleet transferring too in the bench without impacting the business -- including the utilization, without impacting the business.

(Excerpt from full INFY conference call transcript)

One key to continuing growth as the headcount increases is to reduce turnover. Some progress has been made here.

During the quarter, our annualized employee attrition declined to 15% from 17% in Q4. While we are pleased with our sequential progress in this area, attrition remains above historical levels. We continue to monitor employee attrition carefully and take necessary short and long-term steps to manage it.

(Excerpt from full CTSH conference call transcript)

Given Cognizant's 43,000 employee count, a 2% reduction in annual turnover offers the same benefit as hiring 860 employees in a year. They also seem to be focusing on hiring the real revenue generators:

The increase in cost of revenues was due to additional technical staff for on-site and offshore required to support our revenue growth. We increased our technical staff by over 4,300 during the quarter and ended the quarter with approximately 40,800 technical staffs. This is a net increased of almost 15,750 technical staff from March 31, 2006.

(Excerpt from full CTSH conference call transcript)

Because of the ability to focus the hiring, because of increased productivity as employees gain experience and because of the low current utilization, there is certainly some room for the companies to grow faster than they add employees. However, this ability is somewhat temporary. Long term, more sales will require more bodies. The question is whether those bodies can be found and retained.

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