Australia shares rise 0.3 pct; best weekly gain in seven weeks

Fri Jan 18, 2013 1:08am EST

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SYDNEY Jan 18 (Reuters) - Australian shares gained 0.3 percent on Friday to hit a fresh 20-month closing high, buoyed by mining stocks and a strong lead from Wall Street, although investors shrugged off data showing improved growth in China.

The S&P/ASX 200 index ended 14.6 points higher at 4,771.2, according to the latest data, to be up 1.3 percent for the week, the biggest weekly gain in seven weeks.

The market was little moved by Chinese GDP data, which pointed to a 7.9 percent growth in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, snapping seventh straight quarters of slowing expansion.

"I think it (the market) probably wants to see a much stronger figure to be convinced," said Winston Sammut, investment director at Maxim Asset Management, of investors confidence in the world's second biggest economy.

Global miner Rio Tinto Ltd climbed 2.7 percent after chief executive Tom Albanese stepped down following billions of dollars of write-offs on aluminium and coal assets, to be replaced by iron ore division chief Sam Walsh.

"He is probably a bit more disciplined and stringent player," said Evan Lucas, a market strategist at IG Markets. "He is quite a good fit."

The mining sector posted broad gains, with top miner BHP Billiton Ltd adding 0.4 percent and Fortescue Metals Group Ltd jumping 3.2 percent, although analysts said prices may pause after recent gains.

"Notwithstanding commodities prices have picked up and the iron ore prices have done well, perhaps it has reached the peak for the time being," Sammut said.

OZ Minerals Ltd, Australia's no. 3 copper producer, jumped 5.2 percent after copper rose more than 1 percent on Thursday on encouraging U.S. housing and jobs data.

Financials were mixed, with National Australia Bank adding 1.2 percent and Westpac Banking Corp, dipping 0.1 percent.

Energy stocks rose moderately, with Australia's top two oil and gas producers Woodside Petroleum Ltd and Santos Ltd up 0.3 percent and 0.5 percent respectively.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index backed off from a five-year high and fell 0.8 percent to 4,164.2, after the country's Q4 consumer price index dipped 0.2 percent, lower than expected.

(Reporting By Maggie Lu Yueyang; Editing by Richard Pullin)