Australia share index breaks above 4,600 as miners, banks climb

MELBOURNE Tue Dec 18, 2012 8:52pm EST

MELBOURNE Dec 19 (Reuters) - Australian shares rose 0.5 percent to a fresh 17-month high on Wednesday as top miners and banks gained after advances in U.S. stocks, oil and base metal prices on signs of progress in talks to avoid a U.S. "fiscal cliff".

U.S. markets surged for a second straight session as investors were encouraged by apparent progress being made in U.S. budget negotiations.

"Fiscal cliff optimism has pushed the market a bit higher, getting that end-of-year rally that a lot of people have been hoping for," said Cameron Peacock, a strategist at IG Markets.

"What is important, and what is driving the market higher, is that the two parties (Republicans and Democrats) are now in constructive discussions over specific tax levels and spending programmes, and working towards a common middle ground," he said.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index was up 22 points at 4,617.1 by 0121 GMT. It climbed 0.5 percent on Tuesday to 4,595.2.

A close above 4,600 would be the first above that level since July 2011.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index rose 0.9 percent to 4,015.3.

STOCKS ON THE MOVE:

* Surfwear company Billabong International plunged 11 percent to 87 Australian cents after it said it received a $556 million takeover bid for the company at A$1.10 a share, but also cut its earnings guidance.

Billabong said it needed to confirm the status of the consortium's takeover offer after the profit downgrade and media reports detailing the bid this week.

The offer was conditional on no material adverse change in Billabong and "also states that if confidentiality in the proposal is lost, for any reason, the proposal is withdrawn with immediate effect," Billabong said.

0143 GMT

* Whitehaven Coal Ltd rose 5.3 percent to A$3.38 after the company said it has held talks with China's Shenhua Group about a potential corporate or asset deal.

0143 GMT

* Top miner BHP Billiton rose 0.7 percent to A$36.87, its highest since February, while rival Rio Tinto added 1.2 percent to A$65.33, a 6-1/2 month high. Top banks mostly rose, led by a gain of 0.6 percent in National Australia Bank.

0142 GMT (Reporting by Miranda Maxwell; Editing by Chris Gallagher)