Tactical margin levers exercised well. Indian IT reported weak growth. Margins were not as bad considering rupee headwinds and seasonal costs due to extreme cost optimization and increase in utilization (aggregate headcount of Tier-1 IT declined). Earnings were better courtesy Fx gains. Brace for weak growth in FY2018 as drag from legacy business exceeds upside from digital business and there is no pickup in US BFS spends as yet, optimism notwithstanding. Stocks are inexpensive and high payout provides support to stock price but lack triggers.
1QFY18—lacks seasonal strength
June 2017 quarter lacked characteristic seasonal strength. Tier-1 IT companies reported 0.2-2.7% sequential organic c/c revenue growth. Reasons for weakness are well-known—structural challenges in retail industry, regulatory headwinds in US healthcare vertical and no pickup in IT spends of US BFS clients. Growth was relatively better for Infosys and TCS but a tad soft for others. Among mid-tier companies, Hexaware impressed with 4.9% c/c sequential growth. Mindtree and L&T Infotech reported modest 1.2% and 1.5% organic c/c qoq growth while Tech M reported 2% decline.
North America drags, Europe better than expected
North America grew slower than the company average for most players. It was due to no pickup in IT spends of BFSI and structural challenges in retail in addition to weakness in healthcare; these three verticals account for 45% of North America IT spends. Management commentary on this geography didn't suggest any immediate pickup even as the companies remained optimistic about increase in BFS spends. Continental Europe was a surprise performer in June 2017 quarter. Indian IT companies are investing for growth in markets other than North America; however, improvement is not adequate to offset weakness in North America. Another reason for sluggishness is lower number of large deals and smaller deal sizes. Indian IT's commentary on digital opportunities was more optimistic even as progress lags expectations.
Margin defense led by impressive uptick in utilization and extreme cost optimization
Most Indian IT companies defended margins quite well in view of headwind from rupee appreciation in addition to wage hike and visa costs. Better-than-expected margin performance was driven by (1) increase in utilization up to 200 bps qoq and 370 bps yoy for Tier-1 IT. Indian IT have calibrated hiring; net headcount addition of Tier-1 IT was negative for the first time, (2) lower wage inflation and pushback of wage-hike rollout, and (3) extreme cost optimization. While margin performance has been impressive, it was driven by tactical levers. The more sustainable automation-led margin defense is still awaited. We note that net profit of most companies was better than estimates on higher other income driven by forex gains.
Brace for another tough year; we like Infosys in the IT pack
Slowdown in growth rates is due to synchronized sequence of negatives—we do expect rebound in growth rates, but it will be only for a select few who invested in digital capabilities and are well-positioned to defend their share of business in traditional areas. TCS, Infosys and Mindtree appear well-positioned in this journey. Putting a valuation layer as well to the underlying inherent business model strength, Infosys stands out as the most attractive; this, of course, comes with the caveat of business distractions emanating from the continuing friction between the founders and the board.
Hiring, attrition and utilization
Aggregate headcount of Tier-1 IT companies declined by 1,340 as against net hiring of close to 15,000 in June quarter in the previous two years. We note that joining of freshers from campus usually commences from June quarter. It looks like companies may have given later joining dates this year and also reduced freshers hiring.
A trend that is consistent across players is easing of attrition over the past three quarters and it is a reflection of muted demand. Low attrition has allowed companies to improve utilization rates and delivery efficiency, especially in fixed-price projects. That said, extended period of low attrition also limits ability of companies to manage employee pyramid. The current attrition level of most Indian IT companies is in line or above optimum attrition (attrition level that helps companies the most without impacting ability to manage employee pyramid).
Highlights from June 2017 quarter performance
- Revenue growth. Topline growth was soft but in line with our estimates for almost all companies with the exception of Hexaware (strong outperformance) and Mindtree (disappointed). On organic c/c basis, growth of Tier-1 ITs varied from 0.2-2.7% whereas that of mid-tier companies was in the range of -2% to 4.9%. The divergence in trend was largely due to ramp-up in large deals, won over the past 2-3 quarters, at mid-tier companies. Among Tier-1 IT, Infosys and TCS led the pack with about 2.7% and 2% qoq organic constant-currency growth followed by HCLT (1%) and Wipro (0.2%). Hexaware stood out with 4.9% c/c revenue growth aided by accelerated ramp-up of deals won in the recent past.
- Vertical, geos and service mix. The performance of verticals varied across Tier-1 IT largely reflecting deal wins and/or client-specific challenges in the underlying portfolio. Telecom was robust for Infosys and TCS but weak for others suggesting market share gain/losses. BFSI was robust and steady for Wipro and HCLT indicating ramp-up in deals won recently (and acquisition). On the geos front, North America was weak while Europe grew. The outlook and management commentary for North America was muted. Cross-currency tailwinds aided Europe growth in US$ terms. Acquisitions boosted growth for HCLT. Among services, there was no uniform trend. Growth in IMS, the usual growth driver, was a tad weak for Tier-1 IT but strong for mid-tiers. ER&D services revenue grew well for Infosys and HCLT but was muted for Wipro. TCS has reorganized service offerings and has discontinued service-line disclosures in the near term.
- Operating margins. EBIT margins of a few companies declined on a yoy basis (TCS, Wipro, Tech M, Mindtree and L&T Infotech) whereas for others (Infosys, HCLT and Hexaware) it was flat or better. Key headwinds were—(1) appreciation of INR against USD, (2) continued pricing pressure and (3) additional investments in digital capabilities. These headwinds were partly offset by operational efficiencies (largely utilization) and automation. Infosys reported release of about 3,500+ FTEs in 1QFY18 through automation initiatives.