Australia shares edge higher, banks, resources support

Sun Feb 23, 2014 7:59pm EST

(Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)

SYDNEY Feb 24 (Reuters) - Australian shares held firm at 3-1/2 month highs on Monday, pushing modestly higher in a choppy morning underpinned by gains in resources and banking stocks.

BHP Billiton Ltd and Rio Tinto Ltd climbed 1.3 percent and 0.5 percent as copper held steady on Friday. BHP and Rio both surpassed market forecasts with solid earnings earlier this month.

Banks were also bid up in morning trade, with Westpac Banking Corp and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group rising 0.7 percent each.

Keeping the market restrained were stocks going ex-dividend. Australia's biggest telephone company Telstra Corporation Ltd and grocer Wesfarmers Ltd fell 3 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, as both traded without rights to their dividends.

The S&P/ASX 200 index added 14.3 points to 5,453.0 by 0054 GMT, a hair's breath away from the previous high of 5,457.3 hit on October 28, 2013. A breach of that level would mark the highest point for the benchmark in 5-1/2 years.

The market rose 0.5 percent on Friday, and added 1.5 percent for the week, its third consecutive week of gains. The benchmark has risen 4.8 percent so far in February, rebounding from a 3 percent loss in January, underpinned by a healthy earnings season.

"In fundamental terms, earnings growth is improving," said David Cassidy and Dean Dusanic, strategists at UBS in a note to clients, adding that better revenues have been helped by a lower Aussie dollar while higher margins were supported by cost-cutting measures.

Bluescope Steel Ltd jumped 8 percent to 3-1/2 year highs of A$6.35 after the steel manufacturer delivered a strong first half net profit of A$49.1 million, a A$50.7 million improvement from the year-ago period.

Beach Energy Ltd soared 6.2 percent to near 1-year highs of A$1.62 after saying its half year net profit attributable to members was up 267 percent to A$160.5 million.

On the downside, Boart Longyear tumbled 8.2 percent to A$0.39 after the drilling services firm posted a full-year loss for 2013 due to continuing weakness in the global mining industry.

"Earnings have been largely as expected, we've seen traders close off their positions pre any announcement on expectation of surprises," said Kara Ordway, market maker and trader at City Index.

"There's been a bit more caution than we have seen in the past during earnings season."

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index added 0.4 percent to 4,946.2.

(Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

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