Australia shares flat in choppy trade, Woolworths, Virgin Australia fall

Thu Feb 27, 2014 8:05pm EST

(Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)

SYDNEY Feb 28 (Reuters) - Australian shares were mostly flat in choppy trade on Friday, underpinned by the S&P 500 stock index closing at record highs overnight, but mixed earnings reports from Woolworths and Virgin Australia held investors back.

The S&P 500 closed at a record overnight after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said harsh weather seemed to be behind recent U.S. economic softness.

Miners rose ahead of majors BHP Billiton Ltd and Rio Tinto Ltd going ex-dividend next week. BHP added 0.5 percent while Rio climbed 1.5 percent.

Gains were capped as index heavyweight Woolworths Ltd tumbled 1.8 percent after the grocer nudged up its full year guidance, but said its Masters home improvement business posted a A$72 million loss for the half.

Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd dropped 1.4 percent after reporting a large first-half loss as a bruising price war with rival Qantas Airways Ltd took its toll.

The S&P/ASX 200 index added 0.3 points to 5,411.7 by 0046 GMT. The benchmark is set to slip 0.5 percent for the week, but jump 4.3 percent for the month, rebounding from a 3 percent loss in January as a healthy earnings season buoyed investor sentiment.

James Hardie Industries Plc soared 6.8 percent to an all-time high of A$14.59 after the world's biggest fibre cement products maker said it would pay a special dividend to investors as it booked a 64 percent rise in third-quarter profit.

"The earnings season seems to have gone down reasonably well, whilst the growth has been solid enough, it hasn't been particularly widespread," said Matthew Sherwood, head of investment market research at Perpetual, adding that growth was concentrated in the four sectors of financials, consumer discretionary, materials and telecommunications.

"These sectors are accounting for 96 percent of the rise, they also account for 78 percent of the dividend increase."

Australian private sector credit rose 0.4 percent in January according to the Australian bureau of statistics, in line with forecasts, helping to support a slight uptick on the benchmark index after the news.

However, a handful of defensives kept gains in check. QBE Insurance Ltd lost 2.6 percent while Sonic Healthcare Ltd shed 1.6 percent.

Mermaid Marine Australia Ltd, plunged 10.4 percent as it traded ex-dividend to A$2.41, its lowest point since September 2010. The Australian marine logistics firm had agreed to buy the offshore businesses of Singapore's Jaya Holdings Ltd for A$550 million in cash earlier this week.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index eked out a gain of 0.1 percent at 4,967.7.

(Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Eric Meijer)