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December 25, 2003

Private Equity Week features heated debate on offshore outsourcing


Though it isn't clear why the social implications of offshore outsourcing is a fit concern for a magazine focussed on Private Equity, PE Week's Editor-At-Large Dan Primack has triggered off an interesting debate with his column on the topic.

According to Primack, US-based businesses should examine every possible avenue of hiring locally before going overseas. "It should be one of the most difficult decisions of your professional career. If it isn't, then it's generally safe to say that you are a fairly self-centered and callous person," he says in his column. "For those companies who do wind up with operations in Beijing or Mumbai, it is your responsibility to retrain the workers you are leaving behind and/or to help them find new jobs," he adds.

The column has received feedback from several PE Week readers. Some extracts from the feedback that I found interesting:

The Sentimental

It is "callous and self-centered" to move jobs overseas? Have you traveled recently to these countries and seen the overwhelming poverty? Provided that you are willing to enact socially responsible business practices in your new locations, the only egocentrism I see is those nationalistic isolationists who don't recognize our universal humanity: foreign people are no less "worthy" of decent jobs than Americans are.

-- Jed W

How about the jobs being created overseas - don't those count? The US is pretty much the most prosperous country in the world and even though we complain that unemployment levels are high, they are one of the lowest levels globally. We learn in Economics that countries should engage in what they do best and that seems to have served the US very well for many years, but now that companies are moving operations to countries where labor is a comparative advantage - complaints abound.

If we say we are part of a global economy we can't expect to just get all the benefits with none of the disadvantages. I'm a dual citizen (American and Nigerian). America benefits from the fact that it can import many of its products to Nigeria since Nigerians do not have the technology to produce these products. But Nigerians (and other agricultural economies) do not experience the same benefits in terms of importing some of its produce to the US because American farmers are subsidized and thus price imports out of the market. Is that fair?

Many of the workers who lose their jobs when basic operations move overseas can get retraining on their own or by the company that laid them off - for example, most employment agencies offer free basic computer training if you sign up with them. We are so lucky in this country but we just don't realize it. Even in the worst-case scenarios where people end up jobless there are welfare benefits which are non-existent in most of the countries where the jobs move to.

I understand that you are trying to make the point that the executives who are moving operations are doing so for purely financial reasons, however, I think there is a broader point here and it is that we should care about those that are less fortunate than us and not just our fellow Americans. There are so many impoverished people the world over that are benefiting from these overseas moves. The overseas moves benefit the people it creates jobs for more than it hurts those who lose their jobs in the US.

--Feyi B

India is a poor country with a billion people. George Bernard Shaw said once, "there is no greater sin that poverty" and when you see that India's teeming millions may have a chance to 'catch up' (well, in another thirty years) in terms of standard of living, etc. the outsourcing story will not sound entirely evil.

Poverty begets many things Dan, and as we've learnt so painfully, Sept 11 was a result of some people's poverty that some greedy but cowardly thugs sitting in mountains managed to exploit. For a more equitable world, the ironing out process will have to come with pain for many....If corporations can somehow be more humane about the outsourcing story, identify opportunities that they say are available in the US and UK for displaced workers, enable job training, reconcile themselves to slower profit ramp up, I guess we can still live in a world where we don't need to start new hatreds.

From my one trip to the US a few years ago, I was touched and moved by the acceptance in the hearts and minds of Americans, from loving Indian food to clothes, to the people, I would hate for all that to be reversed due to the onset of globalization that is unstoppable but something that definitely ..can be handled with more finesse and class.

-- Parvati P

The Practical

What you are proposing here is effectively a "social tariff" on labor (e.g. the "cost" of offshore labor should be considered higher because of exogenous effects on local labor). If a producer can purchase comparable labor at lower prices, then free markets demand that advantage be capitalized upon. To do otherwise, exposes a firm to competitors that do not face such a social tariff. The evidence on the destructive nature of tariffs on markets is immutable. Tariffs protect markets from competition reducing the need (or capacity) to innovate ultimately causing obsolesce. The steel industry in the US is dead because the federal government tried to "protect" it through tariffs. The business was nevertheless captured by the Japanese and others who innovated.

The risk to labor in increasingly technical and skilled areas is absolutely clear. The wage arbitrage opportunity is compelling. But arbitrage is a brilliant equalizing force driving two factors that come into play (1) as the wage differential continues to be exploited, over time, labor prices in the US will go down, and labor prices in India and China will go up reducing the incentive to move offshore, (2) US labor will have to innovate, provide comparative advantage exclusive of price through creativity, imagination, and new skills. This labor rate pressure will demand innovation of labor and lead the US economy into the next growth phase.

The social equity question of who pays for this retooling of American Labor is a difficult one. You can rely absolutely on the fact that people will do what's in there own best interest. Unfortunately, there is no return incentive for companies to simply retrain workers unless it is to improve returns for their shareholders. Unfortunately, the switching or training costs are often out of reach for the average computer programmer with a mortgage, two kids, and a dog. This gap is a credit constraint not unlike that faced by a high school graduate who is desirous of the income effects of acquiring a college degree. Perhaps, the a student loan program designed to fill such a gap is the answer.

Not necessarily an elegant solutions, but competitive markets are harsh In terms of individual outcomes and optimal in terms of overall result.

-- Brian F

One thing to contemplate is why third world countries can compete so easily with US based firms. We spend more money on education per student than any country in the world, but India, China, Romania and myriad other less developed countries beat us not just on price but on quality. I work with a telesales outsourcing company with a call center in India. These people speak better English than most university educated people in the US and with virtually no detectable accent. Furthermore, they appear more motivated.

Does anyone think that working in a call center is a good job? For all our advances in technology and education shouldn't all or most US citizens be capable of far more? These jobs require no more than a 3rd grade education and training in how to use a computer.

Where can our people provide value? How can the US leverage our intellectual property development capacity? This is both a business issue and a societal issue, and we are at a cross road. Do we believe in free trade? How can we saddle businesses with job retraining costs? Can we expect them to pay more for a commodity than the rest of the world?

--Caleb W

Interesting comments. For info, it was quite difficult but we've done that with a startup we bought in the US, when revenues dropped we moved all software devt in Mumbay. It made it possible to build a great product (one of the most promising i have seen this year) and now they are recruiting again in the US. obviously these are not the same people. i am now working on a model where we don't have to make anyone redundant by proposing them jobs as consultants.

-- Herve H

The Critical

It is a debate between economics and politics.

As a VC, the economic rationale for outsourcing/job loss makes perfect sense. If capital flows to opportunities with highest returns; jobs will flow to locations with the lowest costs & highest quality; or labor will migrate to locations with highest wages. America will have to give up free-market capitalism at a global level and resort to protectionism to prevent such arbitrage opportunities from taking place.

The political issue you have raised is valid, but needs to be addressed in a political forum and not an economic forum such as a private equity newsletter.

-- Matthew V

6 years ago business and political leaders in this nation were painting themselves and having the media paint them as "genius" and " great leaders" for leading a wave of economic improvement and stabilization in a friendly nation of ours, India. Now, from all accounts, Indian companies and government economic officials would have to storm the offices of those "leaders" in order to get a meeting. Now they have to hire lobbying firms and play politics to preserve something that they were the beneficiaries of, but less than half a decade ago, we were tripping over ourselves claiming creation of, their economic empowerment and evolution to the table of growing nations.

Come on...quit playing politics with reality, and with historical evolution...

Companies here or anywhere else on earth are in business to "make money"!! That's their purpose, public or private. It's their obligation to do THAT in the most cost effective manner possible, and that has ALWAYS been the case... it's just sad that it's only when downturns hit and we seem to be feeling the consequences of our great, revolutionary leadership does anyone want to stand up and cry. I would have much more respect for those arguing if they had been standing proudly in defiance of all that this outsourcing trend is now producing, if they had done so during the height of the boom of the 90s, years in advance of the downturn and it's potentially having a personal impact on them.

I enjoy your columns and input, but personally, on this point of outsourcing, you've gotten too "political" which hasn't made reading your normally insightful, concise morning reports much different than reading the editorial pages of the WSJ or LA Times.

-- Rob R

Click Here to read the full version of Dan Primack's column and the feedback it generated.