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  • Pandemic Is a Surprise Boon for Women in the World’s Back Office

    Pandemic Is a Surprise Boon for Women in the World’s Back Office

    (Bloomberg) -- The coronavirus pandemic has hit women worldwide with job losses and closures of childcare centers. Yet a surprising bright spot is emerging: India’s $200 billion technology services industry, where new rules are expected to provide female workers with a broad swath of flexible work arrangements and fresh employment opportunities.On the outskirts of New Delhi, Teena Likhari, 45, quit her job running operations for the Indian back office of a Silicon Valley company in 2018 because of a family medical emergency. Looking to rejoin this year, she expected a market stunted by lockdowns. Instead, the pandemic had made work-from-home mainstream in her industry, which had long shunned the practice.Not only did the operations manager quickly land a job with Indian outsourcer WNS Global Services, but working from her home in the city of Gurgaon, she began overseeing a 100-member team in the city of Pune about 900 miles away.Likhari is one of the early beneficiaries of India’s decision to lift decades-old restrictions on remote work in back office firms because of the pandemic. The tech services industry -- one of the country’s most important financially -- can now allow employees to shift from traditional offices to work-from-anywhere arrangements, permanently if needed. Indian women, who have often had to sacrifice for their husbands’ careers or other commitments at home, have much to gain from the policy change.“Even a year ago, an operations leader working remotely would’ve been unimaginable,” said Likhari, who has seen scores of women quit work after childbirth, marriage or when a family member fell ill. “The change will allow so many career women like me to do what we do from home, it’s a game changer.”India’s large numbers of English-speaking graduates and cheaper costs relative to the West have spawned a sprawling industry that’s often called the world’s back office because of its global reach. The broad outsourcing sector, which includes technology services in addition to business processes, employs about 4.5 million people. Foreign banks from Deutsche Bank AG to Barclays Plc run wholly owned centers handling everything from global payrolls to technology infrastructure maintenance for themselves and customers. Local outsourcers Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. and WNS offer everything from data analytics to support on financial and accounting processes to international clients.The pandemic has changed workplaces globally but the new norms are particularly significant in India. Social conventions that required women to move to their husband’s locations or stay with family in small towns, or simply be available inside the home to care for elders and children have shut out millions of qualified female workers. Greater flexibility and the opportunity to work from anywhere would give them choices they’ve never had before.Also, India’s old rules - originally designed to prevent misuse of leased telecom lines - had prevented permanent work from home arrangements in back offices. But the pandemic pushed the government to remove decades-old reporting obligations, such as those requiring companies to provide office network diagrams in order to get international communication circuit allocations. The changes opened the door for people to work from home on a long-term basis.A huge segment of working women in India, particularly the less privileged, have faced many of the same problems that have beset their global counterparts during the pandemic as they’ve had to juggle childcare, online schooling and office work from home, forcing some to drop out. Millions of female rural workers and daily wage earners lost jobs because they can’t work from home. Yet, the changes in the technology services industry show just how deeply the pandemic is forcing Indian companies to reimagine workplaces.Companies like WNS, which caters to the likes of Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., Tesco Plc and Avon Products Inc., are envisaging a hybrid office and home model, satellite offices in small cities and a blend of full-time employees and gig workers. “We’ll see work going to people rather than people going to work,” said Keshav Murugesh, group chief executive officer of WNS which employs 43,000 workers globally, nearly 30,000 of them in India. “With flexible hours or selected work days, over 100 million Indian women with secondary degrees, could potentially find employment,” he said.Mumbai-headquartered Tata Consultancy, closing in on half a million workers, has already committed to a “25-by-25” strategy -- by 2025, only 25% of its workforce will be working inside an office at any one time.“Given time and location flexibility, less women will quit after having children,” said N.G. Subramaniam, chief operating officer of Tata Consultancy, Asia’s largest outsourcer with $22 billion in annual revenue. “More women will stay in the workforce, more will reach senior leadership levels.”A third of India’s technology services labor force comprises women, already a better gender ratio than most other industries in the country, Nasscom, the industry trade association says. Work from home opportunities in back offices may now offer more opportunities to qualified women in small towns who aren’t allowed to migrate to bigger cities for work.Most of the back office outsourcing centers are located in sprawling campuses within big cities like Bangalore or New Delhi. Barclays, for instance, has over 20,000 workers providing technology solutions globally and UBS Group AG has 6,000 employees, about a third of them in Mumbai alone. Deutsche Bank employs 11,500, nearly half of whom are in the neighboring city of Pune. Most of these workers have been operating from home during the pandemic. India had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns this year. “There is so much talent in smaller cities that has been untapped so far,” said Madhavi Lall, head of human resources at Deutsche Bank India. “Flexible work arrangements would certainly bring that talent to the fore, especially women who find it difficult to migrate or shift their base.”The pandemic has pushed discussions on future work models and strategies, especially with regard to arrangements like staggering employee shifts, rotating days or weeks of in-office presence, she said. And that along with the change in India’s government rules will enable more women to join the workforce.While India is evolving, cultural norms need to progress further, said Debjani Ghosh, president of Nasscom. Added flexibility could certainly improve women’s participation in the workforce. But it could also increase pressure to simultaneously deliver on the home front.“If work-from-anywhere has to succeed,’ Ghosh said, “the mindset that women have to work as well as single-handedly manage the home has to change.”(adds details on lockdown)For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

  • If the Holidays Make Anyone Happy This Year, It’s Grocers

    If the Holidays Make Anyone Happy This Year, It’s Grocers

    (Bloomberg Opinion) -- Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat. Well, maybe not so much this year.Covid-19 is poised to reshape Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, with downsized celebrations the norm. This isn’t necessarily bad news for food retailers. In fact, with more people eating at home, the holidays could bring grocers some cheer.According to GlobalData, Americans are expected to spend 5.2% more on holiday food and drink this year compared with 2019. The increase in food and grocery sales in the final three months of 2020 could be even bigger in the U.K., at 14%, the data provider estimates.But people probably won’t be spending on the usual items. For example, grocers are betting shoppers won’t need as many big centerpiece turkeys for holiday dinners. Consequently, they’ve upped their orders of turkey breasts (typically still attached to bone and known as crowns in Britain). Walmart Inc. will carry 20% to 30% more of them this year. Its British arm, Asda, said sales of frozen turkey crowns, which typically feed three to four people, are up 230% since they went on sale in mid-October, compared with 2019, outperforming frozen whole turkeys.Kroger Co., the U.S.’s largest traditional supermarket chain, said that in addition to offering more small turkeys, it was preparing for heightened demand for ham, beef, pork roast and seafood. Alongside crowns, Britain’s Tesco Plc expects chickens and vegan alternatives to be popular. Its smaller U.K. rival Waitrose has tripled stocks of its upmarket Venison Wellington, which serves four people, after a flood of orders.Large turkeys aren’t very profitable anyway, as supermarkets compete to offer the cheapest deals. Stores can actually charge more for packaged turkey crowns.Smaller gatherings potentially mean more groups purchasing their own Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Take turkeys: Rather than a family buying one large bird to feed collected relatives, four or five family groups might each buy a crown or a joint of meat. If each group still wants all the trimmings — sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce — that could mean an overall higher volume of food sold.Fewer people dining in restaurants or spending the holidays abroad will also translate into more eating at home. This may be why people seem to be buying early. Sales of Christmas puddings were up 81% in the U.K. in October compared with the year earlier, according to data provider Kantar. The pandemic has also encouraged more preparation of food and drinks from scratch, whether it’s bread baking or DIY cocktail mixing. Data provider Nielsen expects this to continue over the holiday season. Perhaps the biggest potential benefit to food retailers is shoppers buying more expensive items. Many affluent consumers have amassed savings under lockdown. At a time when many outside indulgences are unavailable, some shoppers are channeling their lust for luxury into their grocery carts, opting for filet mignon instead of cheaper cuts of meat or springing for an extra-fancy bottle of wine.  Consumers have a propensity to trade up for the holidays, and they may be even more willing to do so this year. A report from market research company IRI found shoppers are less price sensitive about food and some other household essentials right now. They’re not balking as packaged-goods companies raise prices and yank promotions. This doesn’t mean supermarkets can rest easy. As infections spike across the U.S. and Europe and shoppers have to deal with more restrictions, their preferences could suddenly shift again. This would test already stretched food supply chains, particularly in the U.S., where stock levels haven’t returned to normal.Retailers need to build in as much flexibility as possible. That means, for example, having the option to buy extra turkey crowns if there’s a surge in demand. If retailers fail to get the balance right, they could end up with too much of a particular product. Grocers have already navigated many challenges amid the pandemic — a rise in people working from home, an explosion in e-commerce ordering and a flight to comfort foods, just to name a few. Smaller holiday dinners are another to add to the list. With sharp inventory management and marketing, at least this shift won’t leave the industry hungry for sales. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinionSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

  • Walmart to Sell Most of Japan’s Seiyu to Rakuten and KKR

    Walmart to Sell Most of Japan’s Seiyu to Rakuten and KKR

    (Bloomberg) -- Walmart Inc. is selling most of Japanese retailer Seiyu to KKR & Co. and Rakuten Inc. in a deal that values the supermarket chain at 172.5 billion yen ($1.6 billion), as the U.S. giant retreats from its two-decade attempt to crack Japan’s retail market.Under the agreement, private equity fund KKR will become the majority owner with a 65% stake, while Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten takes 20%, the companies said in a statement Monday. Walmart will retain a 15% minority interest. Rakuten and KKR will seek to shore up Seiyu’s digital operations as demand for online retail grows in Japan amid the pandemic. The new owners are retaining a previously announced plan to re-list Seiyu in the future.“An IPO is certainly common goal for us,” Eiji Yatagawa, a partner at KKR, told Bloomberg News. “What’s important is to build a business that can go public. For a company to go public, you need to demonstrate a very attractive story to the market.”In June last year, Walmart said it would seek to relist Seiyu, following years of speculation that it was seeking to sell the chain after years of poor performance. While a 2018 report in the Nikkei newspaper said the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer planned to sell the business for as much as 500 billion yen, the company had repeatedly denied it was looking to exit. The price paid by KKR and Rakuten for the stakes was not disclosed.Walmart expects to recognize a non-cash loss of about $2 billion after taxes in the fiscal fourth quarter related to the deal, according to a regulatory filing. The company “does not expect a significant impact to earnings per share following completion of the transaction.”Foreign FailuresWalmart first invested in Seiyu in 2002 and took it private in 2008. But like other foreign retail giants, including Tesco Plc and France’s Carrefour SA, it failed to find success in Japan’s notoriously difficult and low-margin supermarket space, and struggled to compete with local rivals such as Aeon Co. and Seven & i Holdings Co.In 2018, it began working with Rakuten on fresh produce delivery in Japan as well an e-book operation in the U.S. The U.S. giant has been reshaping its international operations to focus on high-potential markets like India and China, and investing to build its digital operations globally as it faces cost pressures and sluggish growth in its home market.Fresh produce is a 60 trillion yen market in Japan, but only around 3-4% of that is online sales, according to Noriaki Komori, a Rakuten executive officer, creating a growth opportunity. Books and home appliance see about a third of sales online, he said. The pandemic has boosted e-commerce in Japan, where adoption has sometimes lagged other markets, with online clothes shopping and food delivery seeing notable gains.The pandemic has also been boosting domestic Japanese dealmaking in the second half of the year following a downturn at the start of the outbreak, a surge that private equity firms including KKR as well as Carlyle Group Inc. have been seeking to get involved in. Carlyle in March raised 258 billion yen ($2.5 billion) for its fourth Japan buyout fund, while KKR has been increasing its involvement in the country, declaring Japan in 2019 to be among the most interesting buyout opportunities in the world. The heads of its Japan operations told Jiji in September that it aimed to do one or two deals totalling 300 billion to 700 billion yen a year.KKR and Carlyle Are Betting on a Resurgence in Japan DealmakingThe combination of online retailer -- Rakuten runs Japan’s largest online shopping mall -- with traditional brick-and-mortar store has echoes of Amazon.com Inc.’s $13.4 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market in 2017. Whole Foods has struggled during the pandemic, however, with foot traffic down an estimated 25%. Amazon’s Japan arm already runs a grocery delivery service with Life Corp., a supermarket chain.“The world is very different today than it was 18 months ago for all of us,” said Judith McKenna, president of Walmart’s international business. “The world has accelerated in omni channel and digital transformation in the course of this year, not just in Japan but around the globe.”The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of 2021. Seiyu Chief Executive Officer Lionel Desclee will stay in his role through the transaction and then take a new position within Walmart. A new CEO will then be appointed by a new board comprised of managers from the three owners.(Updates with Walmart’s expected loss in fifth paragraph)For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.