Despite 9.7% US$ growth in Q4FY2018, IT players register lower 3.9% growth due to INR appreciation, tightening of H-1B visa norms to impact profitability

Credit Profile to remain Stable despite pressure on growth and profitability

The aggregate growth of Indian IT Services companies (13 sample companies) was at 3.9% during Q4FY2018 (9.7% in US$ terms) compared to CAGR of 17.1% experienced over the FY2013-2017 period and a 4.2% growth in last fiscal, FY2018. The lower growth was due to the INR appreciating by approximately 4.0% versus US$ during the quarter. As per an ICRA note, Indian IT Services companies are expected to register compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) in mid-to-high single digits for the period FY2018-2021e.

Says Mr. Gaurav Jain, Vice President, ICRA Ltd, “The growth of Indian IT Services companies is impacted by lower demand led by uncertain macro-economic environment, lower deal sizes in digital technologies, cloud adoption and high competitive intensity from local as well as international players. Future growth will be supported by higher spend on digital technologies with larger deals spanning enterprise wise digital transformation, improving discretionary spends, continued cost benefit offered through outsourcing model and market share gains. While companies have increased spending on digital technologies and awarding new contracts, the overall IT budgets have moderated leading to lower incremental spends.  The share of Indian players in Global IT Sourcing market stood at 67% in CY2017 (60% in CY2012), however incremental gains are expected to be at a slower pace. Indian IT Services companies are in the midst of re-orienting their business models focusing more on higher end services such as IT consulting & emerging technologies (digital) and have made considerable progress so far, though they still lag behind international peers. We expect large Indian IT companies to grab a higher share of the digital services space over the next three years.”

In terms of verticals, BFS (Banking & Financial Services) growth has been muted over the last few quarters. Demand for the sector has been adversely impacted by current macroeconomic conditions impacting the banking industry including sustained low interest rates, continued focus on cost optimization and managing their discretionary spends. The BFS segment growth is supported by digitization efforts, cost optimization, regulatory, compliance and security driven initiatives. The Insurance sector has seen good growth led by modernizing of legacy systems and is supporting the overall growth for BFSI which contributes 30% of ICRA’s sample set revenues.

The Manufacturing verticals (17% of ICRA sample set revenues) outperformed other key verticals with 5.8% growth in FY2018 led by automation including internet of things, analytics, optimising supply chain and enhancing distribution channel effectiveness.  With firming up of oil prices resulting in higher discretionary spends, ICRA expects the Energy vertical to perform better compared to previous few years.

As for margins, industry’s operating margins have moderated from 24-25% to 22-24% over the last few quarters. Says Mr. Jain, “the trend reflects the challenging operating environment characterized by pricing pressure on commoditised IT services, wage inflation, higher onsite costs necessitated by visa curbs as well as lower discretionary spend by corporate.”

The recent USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) department policy memorandum “Contracts and Itineraries Requirements for H-1B Petitions Involving Third Party Worksites” in February 2018 has further tightened the rules for H-1B issuances. While earlier the policy was liberal on submission of contracts between the third-party worksite and employer, the new policy makes the contract submission mandatory to demonstrate the requirements of specialty occupation (as applicable for H-1B issuances) as well as employer employee relationship (more so for sub-contracted work) for the duration of the visa. Additionally, detailed itinerary with corroborating evidence will be required if services are to be performed at more than one location to prove nature of such services i.e. specialty occupation as well as non-speculative nature of such services. While earlier H-1B visas were issued for three years at a stretch, the current rule will restrict the visa issuances to the period of contract submitted coupled with maintaining the requisite employer-employee relationship. This is likely to negatively impact the margins of Indian IT Services companies as it will not only increase compliance cost but also deter companies from higher reliance on such visas leading to higher onshore hiring.

With several IT Services players, both local and international, chasing limited new opportunities, price led competition is likely to intensify and will also negatively impact margins. The industry is driving efficiencies through deployment of operating levers such as higher share of fixed price contracts, lesser idle resources & automation benefits. However, these factors will provide limited cushion leading to overall decline in margins from 23.5% in FY2017 to 21.2% in FY2020e. IT Services players profitability also remains sensitive to INR depreciation vis-a- vis major currencies such as US$, GBP and EURO and the same too will have an impact. 

The credit profile of Indian IT Services companies is expected to remain stable underpinned by its ability to sustain free cash flows despite pressure on revenue growth and margins. With aggregate operating margins of ICRA sample set at 22.1% for FY2018 coupled with moderate capex (organic as well as inorganic) and working capital requirements, the free cash flows have remained robust historically. Despite pressures on growth and margins over the medium term, free cash flows are expected to remain healthy, though there could be moderation in the quantum of such cash flows. The credit profile is also supported by net cash position with significant liquidity in the form of surplus investments generated out of past cash flows despite healthy dividend payout and share buybacks.

Over the next decade, ICRA also expects consolidation in the industry especially among small and mid-size players as margin pressure will intensify leading to lower returns for shareholders. Overall, the credit profile is expected to remain stable over the medium term led by IT Services companies ability to sustain free cash flows despite pressure on growth and margins. Geo-Political issues restricting movement of skilled labour or increase in minimum salary requirement too will have negative impact on the sector outlook.