C.P. Chandrasekhar

Why did the fourth largest IT company choose to take the criminal route of falsifying accounts and indulging in fraud? Either Ramalinga Raju is exaggerating the hole in his balance sheet or there is some other, more complex, and more disturbing explanation.

The scam at Satyam Computer Services, the fourth largest company in India’s much showcased and fiscally pampered information technology (IT) industry, has had an unusual trajectory. It began with a successful effort on the part of investors to thwart an attempt by the minority-shareholding promoters to use the firm’s cash reserves to buy out two companies owned by them — Maytas Properties and Maytas Infra. That aborted attempt at expansion precipitated a collapse in the price of the company’s stock and a shocking confession of financial manipulation and fraud from its chairman, B. Ramalinga Raju.

What is ‘known’ as of now is that over an extended period of time, the promoters decided to inflate the revenue and profit figures of Satyam. In the event, the company has a huge hole in its balance sheet, consisting of non-existent assets and cash reserves that have been recorded and liabilities that are unrecorded. According to the ‘confessional’ statement of Mr. Raju, the balance sheet shortfall is more than Rs.7000 crore.

Why did a leading company in one of India’s most successful industries of recent years need to inflate profits? After all, the revenues of India’s IT industry have grown at a scorching compound annual rate of almost 30 per cent in the past eight years, driven by exports. This is remarkable, assuming that revenue and profit inflation have not excessively overstated performance. With cheap skilled labour having shored up profits that were lightly taxed when compared with the norm, net profits must have been substantial and rising too. Why then did the fourth largest IT company choose to take the criminal route of falsifying accounts and indulging in fraud?

One possible cause could be the desire to drive up stock values. The benefits derived by promoters from high stock values are obvious, allowing them to buy into real wealth outside the company and giving them the ‘invasion money’ to acquire large stakes in other firms. This tendency was epitomised by the benefits derived by America Online when it merged with Time Warner. Although the latter had more assets, revenues, and customers, AOL’s higher market capitalisation led to that company and its chairman, Steve Case, getting more out of the deal than did long-time giant Time Warner.

There is some suspicion that Mr. Raju and his family may have sought similar benefits. The family chose to build its shareholding in Satyam Computer Services and shed it when required. For example, in year 2000 Satyam Computer merged with a related company, Satyam Enterprises. Raju’s cousin, C. Srinivasa Raju, who held 800,000 shares, or 19 per cent, in Satyam Enterprises, was reportedly allotted an equivalent number in Satyam Computer, leading to criticism that relative prices did not justify the 1:1 swap.

But the original promoter’s share held by the Raju family and their subsequent acquisitions were not for keeping. Though the precise numbers quoted vary, according to observers the stake of the promoters fell sharply after 2001 when they held 25.60 per cent of equity in the company. This fell to 22.26 per cent by the end of March, 2002, 20.74 per cent in 2003, 17.35 per cent in 2004, 15.67 per cent in 2005, 14.02 per cent in 2006, 8.79 in 2007, 8.65 at the end of September 2008, and 5.13 per cent in January 2009 (Business Line, January 3, 2009). The most recent decline is attributed to the decision of lenders from whom the family had borrowed to sell the shares that were pledged with them. But the earlier declines must have been the result either of sale of shares by promoters or of sale of new shares to investors. According to audited balance sheet figures (if they are to be trusted) available from the CMIE’s database, the paid-up equity in Satyam Computer Services rose from Rs. 56.24 crore in March 2000 to just Rs. 64.89 crore by March 2006 and further to Rs. 133.44 crore in March 2007. Overall, the number of shares held by the promoter group fell from 7.16 crore (22.8 per cent) to 5.8 crore (8.6 per cent) between September 2001 and September 2008.

This points to a conscious decision by the promoters to sell shares, which may have been used to acquire assets elsewhere. The more inflated the share values, the more of such assets could be acquired. It is quite possible that the assets built up by the eight other Raju family companies under scrutiny, including Maytas Properties and Maytas Infra, partly came from the resources generated through these sales. If true, this makes Raju’s confession suspect, since he stated that “neither myself, nor the Managing Director (including our spouses) sold any shares in the last eight years — excepting for a small proportion declared and sold for philanthropic purposes.”

This may not have been the only way in which resources were transferred out of Satyam Computer Services into other arms of the expanding Raju family empire. Money could have been siphoned out through opaque transactions with beneficiaries who were paid sums not warranted by their business profile. Satyam’s business strategy did involve unusual transactions. One example was the acquisition in 1999 by group company Satyam Infoway, which was the largest private Internet Services Provider in the country at that time, of IndiaWorld Communications, for a sum of $115 million. The acquired company operated popular portals such as samachar.com and khel.com that had no clear revenue model, and was the principal beneficiary just as in the AOL deal. According to reports, the owner of IndiaWorld was himself charged with intellectual property violations by his erstwhile employer IndiaWorld.com, an Internet services company managed by U.S.-based ASAP Solutions Inc. Satyam Infoway’s position was that it was aware of the claim being made by ASAP Solutions, but that its interest was not in IndiaWorld.com but was “limited to the URL indiaworld.co.in and the other portals under its banner,” for which it had of course paid a huge sum. There is reason to suspect that this acquisition delivered little to the company, raising questions about the motivation.

Mr. Raju’s confession is also suspect for another reason, which has been widely discussed in the media. Even if he and his colleagues were inflating revenues and profits, the actual revenue earning capacity of the company, as confessed by him, seems to be extremely low. He claims that the huge difference between actual and reported profits in the second quarter of 2008-09 was because the ratio of operating margins to revenues was just 3 per cent rather than the reported 24 per cent. But even if Satyam Computer Services was cooking its books, it was engaged in activities similar to that undertaken by other similarly placed IT or ITeS companies and it too had a fair share of Fortune 500 companies on its client list. It is known that many of these companies have been showing operating margins that are closer to the 24 per cent reported by Satyam than the 3 per cent revealed in Mr. Raju’s confession. Thus in financial year ending March 2008, the ratio of profits before tax of Infosys was 32.3 per cent of its total income, that of TCS 23.1 per cent, of Satyam 27.8 per cent, and that of Wipro 19.2 per cent.

This suggests that either Mr. Raju is exaggerating the hole in his balance sheet or there is some other, more complex, and more disturbing explanation. But whatever it is, the difference between 24 per cent and 3 per cent seems too large to be the industry standard.

Despite indicators of these kinds, which could raise suspicion, Satyam Computer Services remained a leading player with substantial investor support for many years. The promoters continued to hold control over the company despite the small share in equity they held and built an empire with land assets and contracts for executing prestigious infrastructural projects. And despite its award-winning reputation for corporate governance, its impeccable board with high-profile independent directors, and its appointment of big-four member PwC as its auditor, this still mysterious accounting fraud occurred. The full truth, it appears, is not yet out.