The rise of high-end finance work in India

Until recently, outsourcing by global financial firms to India conjured up an image of commoditised low end services outsourcing: call centres, peripheral systems programming, and testing and maintenance. However, in recent years, there is a new rise of more sophisticated work. This reflects supply and demand factors. Global financial firms are keen to cut costs. Capabilities of operations in India — both captives and independant firms — have grown for many reasons:

  • The individuals involved in this field in India have gained experience (”learning-by-doing”) and credibility.
  • New management practices and improved telecommunications technologies have improved the extent to which teams and projects are handled in a more non-local way.
  • The Indian diaspora has been rising to senior management levels in global firms, and is better able to envision what can be done in India and to obtain execution.

A European investment bank was among the first to experiment by bringing in teams in India into critical projects. This was a landmark change as a lot of inertia about confidentiality was overcome. Other banks followed suit. New management practices, higher pay, greater meritocracy came in, which helped Indian teams make the transition from low-end work where the HR and management techniques used are quite different. Demand for high skill labour has helped induce greater supply, with a lag, as individuals were more inclined to tool up with advanced degrees and high-end knowledge.

Alongside the developments in finance, parallel developments were taking place in the field of offshoring which have driven up skill levels, and helped create a high skill ecosystem in India. Top tier consulting firms launched `centres of excellence’ in India, hiring grads from IITs, IIMs, IISc, statisticians, economists. While education in India has huge problems, the raw talent available in India was of good quality, particularly when we focus on individuals who were able to read on their own and reinvent themselves (”never let your school come in the way of your education”). This process has been helped by globally recognised certification exams such as the FRM and the PRM.

IT firms have have been evolving from core development and maintenance to an entire gamut of IT strategy and consulting for financial firms. Many smaller KPO firms with specialised domain knowledge in finance have emerged, who cater to smaller hedge funds, trading houses, not just outsourcing increasingly complex pieces of work, but also advising them on the entire outsourcing strategy. All this has helped create a pool of high skill labour which is moving between multiple employers in India and able to build knowledge through diverse kinds of experience.

The most impressive development of recent years has been the growth of offshore trading units of global brokerages and trading houses, where people sitting in India take independent trading decisions in international financial markets based on their own skills and judgement. In some ways, this is the highest level of transfer of decision functions to India, albeit at relatively low monetary stakes.

In this fashion, within a period of 15 years, India had graduated from doing repetitive low value tasks to Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO) for the global financial system. While these activities are primarily in Bombay, they are also taking place in Gurgaon and Bangalore. The number of high-end finance workers in Bombay has never been greater than it is today. It is estimated that there are now 50 individuals working in Bombay doing work for global financial firms who have Ph.D. degrees in quantitative fields. This is starting to become a big enough number for them to talk with each other and get network effects going. From an employer’s point of view, it is now possible to shop in the labour market in Bombay and recruit a 10-man team all with Ph.D. degrees so as to get a new group going. This is a sea change when compared with conditions just a few years ago.

To appreciate this change a little further, it was interesting to take a look at some of the capabilities of finance focussed KPOs, divided mainly into 4 broad categories, catering to Sales and Trading, Middle office and Back office:

  1. Quantitative Research and Analytics Support:
    1. Equity and FICC Analytics: Model Validation, Price Verification jointly with clients: these are pretty quant heavy functions which require in-depth understanding of products.
    2. Technical and Fundamental Analytics.
    3. Index and Portfolio Analytics: Index maintenance, design, construction, operations and after sales, Portfolio tracking, decomposition and correlation analysis, performance measurement and attribution support.
    4. Derivatives and Risk Analytics: Measurement of derivatives Greeks, Value at Risk, Tolerance checks.
  2. Research:
    1. Equity and FICC Research: Company research, Credit Research, Economics research etc. to augment senior analysts in money centres.
    2. Trade idea generation and back testing: Sales pitches for clients and internal trading desks.
    3. Country, Sector, Company profiling, trends, news and projections: Pitch book generation and support.
    4. 24×7 weather patterns tracking for global energy trading outfits
    5. Overnight trade and market tracking to feed in summary reports, Market Dashboards, news letters, morning meetings and agendas
    6. Market Research: Pre-entry market research and positioning survey for bank’s clients.
  3. Data Analysis and Modelling:
    1. Data sourcing from multiple heterogeneous sources, refining and maintenance: Static data, Live and Historical market data maintenance. Data research and statistical studies feeding into trading strategies.
    2. Data Mining solutions.
    3. Data modelling, smoothing: Providing data solutions for Algo trading desks.
  4. Operations and Control
    1. Derivatives trade processing and documentation: Trade review of structured trades and complex documentation. End to end life cycle management of trades e.g., matching, broker confirmations and fee calculations.
    2. P&L and balance sheet control: Generation and reporting of P&L for vanilla products. Some banks have started moving exotics P&L functions to India. This is quite a significant milestone as such activities require high degree of confidentiality and direct user (e.g., traders) interaction who have zero tolerance for mistakes.
    3. Risk Stress testing, VaR back testing, Risk reporting to senior management.
    4. Auditing: external auditing of valuation marks of trading desks and control processes around it.
    5. It should be noted here that since the funding crisis of 2008, these jobs have become quite complex as most banks have built more sophistication into their analytics. For example, most yield curves would now have multiple basis spreads (like tenor basis, xccy basis) and not just rates desks but even credit and equities desk have been using such advanced discounting curves.)

What’s next

The biggest push probably has been in quantitative middle-office functions with an ever increasing emphasis on valuations and counterparty risk management. Given the way markets have adopted collateral based pricing of derivatives, and the regulatory push on managing counterparty default risk, some captives have started building quantitative teams who will develop and manage CVA, DVA, etc. processes for all trading desks.

The new regulatory climate (Dodd Frank, Basel III etc) has lead to a substantial increase in costs due to additional checks and reporting requirements e.g., centrally cleared OTC trades, real time trade reporting to regulators, exhaustive risk reporting – all of which can are leading to fresh volumes of activity in offshoring.

All high quality banks have a team of techno-quants who work closely with the sales/trading desk, risk managers etc, on their day to day needs as well as on strategic projects. It is now feasible to move such high impact roles to India. It would be possible to have “extended front office teams” where dedicated staff support traders in money centres, doing real time risk analysis and client profiling, while the trade is being dealt overseas.

For a back-of-envelope calculation, if we think of internal billing rates of $100,000 per person per year, and if there are 10,000 persons at this average price, then this is services export of $1 billion a year, which is a sizeable amount. It appears that the early beach-head is in place, and this area will grow dramatically now.

This blog post reflects my experience, which is in investment banking and money management. A similar escalation of complexity of work in India is taking place in retail banking, insurance, etc., reflecting similar compulsions and opportunities.

Constraints

There is a certain tension between the push towards offshoring to India, and the activities that regulators consider `key in-house activities’ that cannot be outsourced.

There are serious constraints with education in India. The top institutions are producing some quantitative skills (e.g. fluency with matrix algebra, fluency in numerical computation). On one hand, there are weaknesses of broad intellectualisation that shapes cognition, creativity and malleability. On the other hand, there is essentially nothing in place by way of a finance education in India. A small amount of high-end finance research is taking place (example) but for the rest, there isn’t much capacity in the existing academic campuses. New approaches to learning and training need to be devised through which high quality individuals, with strong quantitative skills, can be converted into full fledged participation in high-end global finance work. A mix of public and private initiatives are required in order to jump to the next level.

There are strong synergies between the sophistication of the Indian financial system and the work that is done for global financial firms. There is a two-way feedback loop here: Better domestic capabilities will help do sophisticated offshore work, and the brainpower built for offshore work will strengthen domestic capabilities. The best example of this is found in the equity derivatives market, where India has a world-class market. The individuals with a domestic background here are ready for offshore jobs in fields like algorithmic trading, and individuals with capabilities built in offshore work are useful in the domestic setting. This is where India can set itself apart from Malaysia and the Philippines. To the extent that Indian financial reform makes progress, this will fuel the rise of high-end outsourcing to India.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Anand Pai, Paul Alapat and Gangadhar Darbha for useful discussions.

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