Australia shares slip but pare heavy losses on upbeat trade, retail sales

Wed Mar 5, 2014 8:24pm EST

(Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)

SYDNEY, March 6 (Reuters) - Australian shares slipped 0.1 percent on Thursday, as upbeat retail sales and trade balance data helped the index recover from heavier losses, though investors remained cautious over developments in Ukraine.

Miners dragged on the market after iron ore fell to its weakest level since late June, pressured by low demand from Australia's largest export market, China. BHP Billiton Ltd fell 0.5 percent while Rio Tinto Ltd slipped 0.2 percent. Both stocks were trading ex-dividend while Rio also announced changes to its board.

The S&P/ASX 200 index slipped 4 points to 5,442.2 by 0102 GMT, after hitting a session low of 5,422.7. The benchmark gained 0.9 percent on Wednesday to close at the highest point since June 2008.

Elsewhere, retail turnover for January added 1.2 percent month on month while trade balance while Australia's balance of goods and services was a surplus of A$1.4 billion.

"Obviously there are some signs now that the economy has bottomed, if not turning around," said Martin Lakos, division director at Macquarie Private Wealth.

"It's still very mixed and patchy but the other side of that is you're seeing a modest pick-up in activity and that's good news for sentiment and confidence."

Among retailers, electronics and entertainment company JB Hi-Fi Ltd jumped 1.7 percent while department store Myer Holdings Ltd climbed 1.2 percent.

The benchmark has swung in both directions in recent sessions, rising five sessions out of ten as fears over Ukraine was offset by optimism on upbeat local data including GDP, trade balance and retail sales.

Market participants have kept a close eye on developments out of Ukraine, following the most serious confrontation between Russia and the West over influence in Kiev and the control of Crimea.

Analysts noted that with the threat in Ukraine significantly downgraded, risk sentiment has remained steady in global markets. The benchmark is hovering some 20 points from the 5-1/2 year peak of 5,461.7 hit on February 25.

Elsewhere, gold stocks helped shield the market from further losses as safe-haven gold edged higher overnight. Among bullion producers, Newcrest Mining Ltd climbed 1.6 percent and Medusa Mining Ltd bounced 3.8 percent.

Billabong International Ltd lost 2.9 percent after news the embattled surfwear retailer may face a class action lawsuit from investors who were affected by the sharp decline in its share price.

Elsewhere, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said it would not oppose the proposed acquisition of the OneSteel sheet and coil business from Arrium Limited by Bluescope Steel. Shares in Arrium jumped 2.3 percent while Bluescope gained 1 percent.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index added 0.5 percent to extend its rise to all-time highs of 5,096.7 underpinned by an improving economy.

(Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Eric Meijer)