Australia shares ease ahead of earnings flurry

Mon Feb 11, 2013 12:38am EST

(Updates with comments, closing levels)

MELBOURNE Feb 11 (Reuters) - Australian shares wandered 0.2 percent lower in thin trade on Monday, pulling back from a 34-month closing high touched in the previous session, with top miners mostly weaker as base metal prices eased.

Global miners BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto declined 0.6 percent and 0.2 percent respectively, but volumes were light with most Asian players out for the Chinese New Year holiday.

"Traders are awaiting further direction on the corporate earnings front as the week progresses," said CMC Markets senior trader Tim Waterer.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index ended down 11.8 points at 4,959.5. The index jumped 1 percent last week.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index ended down 5.2 points to 4,220.5.

Traders said investors will be watching whether company profits and industry outlooks can manage to validate the 24 percent surge in the broader market over the past seven months, led by a handful of blue-chip stocks.

The corporate earnings season gets underway in earnest this week, with first-half results due from Commonwealth Bank , blood products maker CSL and Rio Tinto.

Shares in electronics retailer JB Hi-Fi Ltd jumped 17 percent to a one-year high after the chain posted a first-half net profit rise of 3.1 percent and same-store sales growth of 4.2 percent in January.

The shares ended up 17.1 percent at A$12.89, the biggest one-day percentage gain since Feb. 10, 2009.

Dealers said short-covering contributed to the share price spike, with retailers in general targeted by hedge funds betting on further price falls, and JB Hi-Fi's stock in particular the most heavily shorted retailer, according to ASIC data.

Investors took heart and sent other retailers higher on hopes for better January sales. Department stores Myer and David Jones rose 3.1 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.

The bourse operator ASX Ltd received an early boost after the Australian government delayed a decision on opening the country's equities clearing facility to competition for two years, extending the ASX's monopoly. The shares finished down 0.2 percent.

Shares in engineering services firm Coffey International jumped 5.5 percent after reporting a return to profit, despite the slowdown in demand from the mining sector.

(Story by Victoria Thieberger; Editing by Stephen Coates)