Satyam’s Fraudulent “Maquiladora of the Mind”

January 8th, 2009 by Phil Mattera

It was only a few years ago that a group of offshore outsourcing companies based in India seemed poised to take over a large portion of the U.S. economy. Business propagandists insisted that work ranging from low-level data input to skilled professional work such as financial analysis could be done faster and much cheaper by workers hunched over computer terminals in cities such as Bangalore. The New York Times once described one of these offshoring companies as “a maquiladora of the mind.”

Among the most aggressive of the Indian firms was Satyam Computer Services Ltd., which signed up blue-chip clients such as Ford Motor, Merrill Lynch, Texas Instruments and Yahoo. In a 2004 report I wrote for the U.S. high-tech workers organization WashTech, I found that Satyam was also among the offshoring companies that were doing work for state government agencies. It was hired, for example, as a subcontractor by the U.S. company Healthaxis to develop a system for handling applications for medical insurance services provided by the Washington State Health Care Authority. As it turned out, Healthaxis’s contract was terminated, allegedly because of late delivery and poor quality in the work done by Satyam.

The Washington State fiasco may have been an early omen of things to come. Satyam has just admitted that for years it cooked its books and engaged in widespread financial wrongdoing. The revelation came in a letter sent to the company’s board of directors by Satyam founder and chairman B. Ramalinga Raju (photo), who simultaneously tendered his resignation.

Raju wrote that what started as “a marginal gap between actual operating profit and the one reflected in the books” eventually “attained unmanageable proportions” as the company grew. The fictitious cash balance grew to more than US$1 billion. “It was like riding a tiger,” Raju colorfully wrote, “not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”

While admitting that he engaged in very creative accounting, Raju insisted he did not personally benefit from the fraud, denying for instance that he had sold any of his shares in the company. I guess it is meant to be some consolation that among his sins Raju is not guilty of insider trading.

Apart from Raju, the party most on the hot seat is the company’s auditor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, whose Indian unit gave Satyam’s financial reports a clean bill of health. The Satyam scandal is being called India’s Enron. It should probably also be called India’s Arthur Andersen as this seems to be another case in which an auditor was either oblivious to widespread accounting misconduct by one of its clients or complicit in it.

Some soul-searching is probably also in order for the many large U.S. corporations that have not hesitated to take jobs away from American workers and ship the work off to Indian companies such as Satyam. The revelation that much of the work has been going to a crooked company is all the more galling.

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