Australia shares mark time as lower iron ore, China drag

SYDNEY, March 11 Mon Mar 10, 2014 9:12pm EDT

SYDNEY, March 11 (Reuters) - Australian shares traded sideways on Tuesday morning, following a dip on Wall Street, with smaller iron ore miners easing further and a pullback in a business conditions survey keeping investors cautious.

Global miners BHP Billiton Ltd and Rio Tinto Ltd steadied from big losses in the previous session, rising 0.1 percent and 1.1 percent respectively.

But smaller iron ore miners were under pressure after Chinese steel and iron ore futures slumped to their lowest levels ever on Monday.

"We saw another big fall in iron ore prices last night," said Rivkin Securities director Shannon Rivkin. "If iron ore prices dip below expectations, you are going to see a lot of downgrades."

Fortescue Metals Group lost 1.2 percent, adding to Monday's 9 percent tumble, Atlas Iron Ltd dropped 2.7 percent and Mt Gibson Iron Ltd lost 2.5 percent.

A surprise drop in exports swung China's trade balance into deficit last month and amplified fears of a slowdown in the world's No. 2 economy.

"Having seen Chinese credit overnight halving from the month before and well below the estimates, the slowdown is only going to accelerate," IG market strategist Evan Lucas said in a note.

The S&P/ASX 200 index was virtually steady, easing just 1.2 points to 5,410.3 by 0044 GMT. The benchmark fell 0.9 percent on Monday.

Banks mostly had a better run, offsetting the softness in the resources sector. Commonwealth Bank of Australia edged up 0.3 percent and Westpac Banking Corp rose 0.5 percent.

Australia's biggest telecommunications company Telstra Corp Ltd rose 1.1 percent, with investors relocating to defensive stocks.

Shares in Leighton Holdings Ltd dropped 2.9 percent, after surging 11 percent in the previous session on an offer from majority holder, Germany's Hochtief AG.

The Australian Securities and Exchange Commission is reviewing share trading in Leighton, which jumped significantly last week ahead of Hochtief's $1 billion offer to boost its stake.

A measure of Australian business conditions pulled back sharply in February from the three-year highs touched the previous month, although firms surveyed remained relatively upbeat on the outlook for the economy.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index fell 0.4 percent to 5,098.0. (Reporting by Maggie Lu Yueyang; Editing by Richard Pullin)

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