(Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)
SYDNEY Feb 28 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
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
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
"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
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)