Australia shares extend rally, financials lead; BHP down as profit declines
(Adds details, comments, stocks on the move) SYDNEY, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Australian shares rose 0.3 percent on Wednesday, extending a rally that has taken the market to 4-1/2 year highs, but global miner BHP Billiton lost ground after its half-year profit dropped sharply and it appointed a new CEO. BHP Billiton dropped 1.2 percent after reporting a 43 percent drop in half-year profits, its worst half-year slide in more than a decade but in line with market expectations. The company said CEO Marius Kloppers will step down in May and be replaced by Andrew Mackenzie. "There's a few fears creeping into the (BHP) stock," said Chris Weston, institutional dealer at IG Markets. BHP said it expects global commodity prices to remain under pressure as new low-cost supplies come into production, even through demand is expected to improve over the next 12 months. Rival iron ore miner Rio Tinto Ltd lost 1.3 percent. Financials underpinned the market, with National Australia Bank leading gains, jumping 1.6 percent. The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index was 16.3 points higher at 5,098 at 0100 GMT. On Tuesday, the market closed at its highest level since September 3, 2008. The Australian market has risen nearly 10% percent this year on receding euro zone and U.S. debt concerns, while a relatively strong earnings season has amplified those gains. "There's a few good earnings reports but I think it's this hunt for yield that continues to push our market higher," Weston said. "I think that's keeping the support; the market doesn't want to go down and you just don't want to be missing out." Big retailers also supported the market. Harvey Norman climbed 1.3 percent while David Jones rose 0.8 percent. Myer bucked the trend, plumbing 0.9 percent. Food retailers Woolworths Ltd jumped 1.2 percent while rival Wesfarmers was up 0.8 percent. New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index lost 0.9 percent or 40.5 points to 4,203.7. STOCKS ON THE MOVE * Aurizon Holdings Ltd lost 5.3 percent to A$3.98. The company reported a 27 percent increase in underlying net profit after tax to $222 million for the first half of the financial year. (0053 GMT) *Seven West Media Ltd crashed 7.1 percent after reporting a half year net loss of $109.3 million (0058 GMT) * Suncorp Group Ltd plumbed 4.3 percent to A$11.16. The insurance company posted a profit of $574 million for the first half. (0057 GMT) * Toll Holdings Ltd surged 4.1 percent to A$5.86. The company reported a half-year net profit of $196 million. (0056 GMT) * Woodside Petroleum Ltd climbed 3.3 percent to A$39.15. Australia's biggest oil and gas company reported a 98 percent surge in full-year net profit on Wednesday, beating analyst expectations. (0057 GMT) (Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)
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