Australia shares slip, investors tread lightly ahead of China PMI survey

Sun Mar 23, 2014 9:01pm EDT

(Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)

SYDNEY, March 24 (Reuters) - Australian shares fell 0.2 percent on Monday on Friday's Wall Street dip, with investors treading carefully around the Crimea crisis and ahead of China's manufacturing PMI survey due out later in the day.

Blue chip stocks lost ground with the 'Big Four' banks all falling. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Australia's top bank by market capitalisation, slipped 0.3 percent while Westpac Banking Corp shed 0.2 percent.

Supermarket giant Wesfarmers Ltd lost 1 percent.

"It's a lack of interest, I think there's also sweat (ahead) of the Chinese data," said John Milroy, investment adviser at Macquarie Bank, adding that volumes were very low.

A total of 138.5 million shares traded hands by 0037 GMT, compared to a daily moving average of 618.3 million so far in 2014.

"I think the market's on a bit of a hold here for lack of a driver, the tendency is to drift off a bit really," Milroy said.

The S&P/ASX 200 index shed 8.5 points to 5,329.6 by 0046 GMT. The benchmark bounced 0.8 percent in the last session.

The benchmark touched a 5-1/2 year high of 5,462.3 on March 7 but has since drifted lower as political tension in Ukraine and fears of slowing growth in China, Australia's largest export market, has soured investor sentiment.

A rally of 4.1 percent in February has been slightly offset by a fall of 1.5 percent so far in March.

However, the resource sector bouyed the market as copper edged higher last week while bullion rose on bargain hunting. Index heavyweight Rio Tinto Ltd added 0.7 percent while Oz Minerals Ltd climbed 3.1 percent. Among bullion stocks, Newcrest Mining Ltd jumped 3.2 percent.

Leighton Holdings Ltd lost 1.7 percent as it traded ex-dividend. Its new chief executive is pushing ahead with a restructure of its operating companies after Hochtief's takeover bid, while Leighton was also awarded a joint venture contract worth $1.7 billion for a new highway in Qatar.

Top investment bank Macquarie Group Ltd gained 3.2 percent after saying it expects a 40 percent to 45 percent rise in annual profit for the year to March 31.

Kathmandu Holdings Ltd soared 9.7 percent to two-week highs of A$3.40 after the New Zealand and Australian clothing and outdoor goods retailer reported a 10.7 percent rise in first half profit on Monday on higher sales and improved margins.

Sino Gas & Energy Holdings Ltd plunged 11.9 percent to A$0.19 after its CEO says he intends to retire from his position.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index edged 0.2 percent higher to 5,137.4. (Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Eric Meijer)

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