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September 28, 2007

Riding the Rising Rupee

Knowledge@Wharton has an interesting article on the rising rupee on the Indian economy in general and another on how Indian IT companies had better change their business models in order to cope.
Instead, Indian firms should take advantage of this opportunity to adapt their business models. How can they do that? While the details of the two industries are quite different, the Japanese automobile industry can suggest some answers. Consider what leading Japanese firms like Toyota did as the yen strengthened against the dollar. For product lines where they made the highest margins, such as the Lexus, they continued production in Japan. However, for lower-priced models -- where their profit margins were lower and would have been eroded further by the rising yen -- they moved production to the U.S. They protected their margins on non-premium products by moving production -- and therefore shifting costs -- into dollar-denominated areas. They also reduced their vulnerability to further appreciation of the yen.

You may remember that during the 1980s, Japanese auto makers were facing a protectionist backlash in the U.S., and they were subjected to import quotas. Their strategy of moving production of lower-priced/lower-profit cars into the U.S. paid off in a couple of different ways. First, they were able to shift yen-denominated costs into dollars. Second, this was a quite savvy political move, because although these companies continued to gain market share in the U.S., there was little pressure to shut down their plants. Doing so would have meant a loss of American jobs.

I believe Indian companies should take a similar approach in response to this recent rising rupee regime. They need to consider how to adapt their business models. To the extent that they compete primarily on cost arbitrage, the rising rupee will work against them. One key question to ask is how to develop other sources of competitive advantage, such as building high-level capabilities which cannot easily be replicated by competitors, or how to change the mix of activities carried out in India versus other countries. Of course, in order to do this, they will have to change their mindset: They will have to stop thinking of themselves as Indian companies and think more like global companies of Indian origin. They will need to analyze their portfolio of costs and move production to where it makes the most economic sense. Notably, Indian IT firms are trying to address rising wage costs by moving production within India to lower cost regions -- Eastern India (Kolkata, Bhubaneshwar) and to Tier II and Tier III towns. However, this will only offset a rising rupee to a limited extent, since the costs will still be in rupees.

Arun Natarajan is the Founder & CEO of Venture Intelligence, the leading provider of information and networking services to the private equity and venture capital ecosystem in India. View free samples of Venture Intelligence newsletters and reports.