Australia shares hover at 1-mth lows on Ukraine worries, gold stocks shine

Sun Mar 16, 2014 9:23pm EDT

(Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)

SYDNEY, March 17 (Reuters) - Australian shares were hovering at one-month lows on Monday morning, as investors were unnerved by tensions between the West and Russia over the referendum results in Crimea, helping buoy safe-haven gold stocks and limiting broad market losses.

The financial sector was on the backfoot, with Commonwealth Bank of Australia slipping 0.5 percent. Mid-tiers Adelaide and Bendigo Bank Ltd and Bank of Queensland Ltd shed 0.2 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively.

Russian state media said Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to break with Ukraine and join Russia on Sunday, sparking anger in the West and Kiev which described the vote as a sham.

The United States warned Russia that Western sanctions were imminent, and called Moscow's actions "dangerous and destabilizing."

"The market's performance is being viewed through the prism of Crimea," said Michael Heffernan, senior client adviser and economist at broker Lonsec in Melbourne.

"But I don't think that that's going to have major impact on the market (in the long term); I don't think anybody wants to go to war."

The S&P/ASX 200 index added 1 point to 5,3330.4 by 0119 GMT, after hitting a low of 5,311.4 in the first hour of trade. The benchmark dropped 1.5 percent on Friday and is down 0.5 percent so far in 2014.

The Australian market touched a 5-1/2 year peak of 5,462.3 on March 7, but has since drifted lower as geopolitical tensions in Ukraine and weak economic data from China have weighed on investor sentiment.

"I think if the market declines it's good value, and if the market goes up there will be profit takers, there's ripples on the sea now," Heffernan said.

Gold rose to a six-month high as investors turned to the yellow metal as a safe-haven amid the Ukraine tensions, lifting bullion stocks. World no.3 gold producer Newcrest Mining Ltd jumped 2.8 percent and Northern Star Resources Ltd soared 5.7 percent to a 14-month high.

Silver Lake Resources Ltd climbed 3.7 percent after entering into a forward gold hedging programme for 50,000 ounces spread evenly from April 2014 to March 2015.

The market was also weighed down by a handful of stocks trading ex-dividend, with food retailer Woolworths Ltd falling 2.3 percent, Leighton Holdings Ltd down 4.4 percent, and Retail Food Group Ltd losing 3.7 percent.

Lend Lease Corp Ltd jumped 1.7 percent after saying its unit had been appointed as preferred tenderer for Northconnex Motorway, which has a construction budget of A$2.65 billion.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index slipped 0.4 percent to 5,059.7. (Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)