Rising labor costs impact Ctrip.com

China's biggest online travel agency has 13,000 employees, and has seen margins fall as wages increase.

By Jim J. Jubak Dec 6, 2011 4:34PM
Image: Man pulling suitcase in airport © Keith Brofsky/UpperCut Images/Getty ImagesI sold Ctrip.Com International (CTRP) out of my Jubak Picks 50 portfolio back on Jan. 18 because I thought the company’s operating margins were eroding as it had to spend more to fend off competition. (The stock is down 40.1% from Jan. 18 through Monday's close.)

That’s exactly what the company reported on Nov. 14 when it released third-quarter financial results. Operating margins for the third quarter of 2011 fell to 31% from 38% in the third quarter of 2010.

And you didn’t have to look far to figure out why. Product development costs rose 31% from the third quarter of 2010 and 18% from the second quarter of 2011. Sales and marketing expenses climbed 39% year to year and 23% from the second quarter. General and administration expenses grew 37% year to year and 13% from the second quarter.

But what I hadn’t anticipated was that Ctrip.com’s business model would leave it so vulnerable to rising labor costs in China. There’s a lesson here for investors in all of China’s stocks.

Ctrip.com is China’s biggest online travel agency and to many of us that conjures images of ticket sales through Internet sites without much, if any, human intervention.

But in reality Ctrip.com gets 50% of its travel bookings through call centers, and call center staff account of half of the company’s 13,000 employees. Having all those employees means that as wages have climbed in China, so have Ctrip.com’s labor costs. And that has eroded Ctrip.com’s gross margins to 76.8% in the third quarter from 78.3% in the third quarter of 2010 and from 77.2% in the second quarter of 2011.

If you can remember back to your time in Accounting 101, Ctrip.com subtracts costs like product development to get the income statement line called operating margin from a larger number on the gross margin line. Gross margin is simply revenue minus cost of goods sold. Stuff like product development and general and administrative expenses then get subtracted from gross profits (gross margin as a percentage) to give you operating profits.

Given that wages in China are almost certain to keep rising over the next five years -- the most recent five-year plan mandates a 15% annual increase in the minimum wage and that should drive up wages for more highly paid workers as well -- investors are looking at a significant long-term drag on Ctrip.com’s business model.

That wouldn’t be as much of an issue -- after all gross margins of better than 75% can absorb rising costs for quite a while -- if the company didn’t face intense competition from Internet travel companies with less labor intensive business models.

Wall Street is projecting that Ctrip.com’s earnings growth will slow to just a bit over 4% in the 12-months ahead. If that’s right, even the trailing-twelve-month price to earnings ratio of almost 9 is too expensive.

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. The mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not own positions in any stock mentioned. The fund did not own shares in Ctrip.com as of the end of September. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here. 


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