* S&P/ASX 200 gains 0.5 pct in thin trade ahead of Easter & Anzac Day break
* Benchmark index set to rise 0.3 percent in shortened trading week
* Finance underpins market, energy sector lower (Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)
By Thuy Ong
SYDNEY, April 17 (Reuters) - Australian shares rose 0.5 percent on Thursday morning as investors took heart from a modicum of stability on Wall Street after the recent heavy tech-driven selloff, though activity was subdued ahead of the long Easter and Anzac Day holiday break.
The index-heavy finance sector underpinned the market. Westpac Banking Corp gained 0.9 percent and National Australia Bank added 0.6 percent. NAB said it has appointed Anthony Healy as managing director and chief executive officer of Bank of New Zealand, replacing Andrew Thorburn.
U.S. stocks rose 1 percent overnight, advancing for a third straight session as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen reaffirmed the central bank’s commitment to keeping interest rates low. A major selloff in U.S. tech shares in recent sessions had raised worries of a deeper pullback and valuation concerns, hitting sentiment across the globe
The S&P/ASX 200 index tacked on 26 points to 5,445.9 by 0212 GMT. Trading was relatively thin, with 231 million shares trading hands, compared to a daily moving average of 618.1 million shares so far in 2014.
The benchmark rose 0.6 percent on Wednesday and is so far up 0.3 percent in a shortened week. Markets will be shut on Friday and Monday for Easter, and close again on April 25 for Anzac Day.
“We’re getting cautious at this level, people are very comfortable,” said Simon Ho, executive director at Triple 3 Partners, an independent investment manager in Sydney, suggesting valuations were high. The benchmark touched a near 6-year high of 5,503.5 on April 10.
“We think it’s likely equities are going to experience more volatility and potentially more downside than we have seen recently.”
In the defensive space, consumer retail staple Woolworths Ltd jumped 1.8 percent.
Elsewhere, Australian businesses reported an improvement in activity last quarter as sales, profits and forward orders all picked up, helping underpin sentiment.
The energy sector tempered the market’s gains, with Karoon Gas Australia Ltd losing 2.2 percent. Santos Ltd was trading flat as the company said quarterly gas production was 4 percent lower than the corresponding period.
Woodside Petroleum bucked the trend, adding 0.4 percent after Australia’s largest independent oil and gas producer reported a 5 percent rise in first quarter production.
NRW Holdings Ltd jumped 4 percent after being awarded a contract worth A$200 million by Samsung C & T Corporation for the construction of the Package One Works at Roy Hill.
Meanwhile, Padbury Mining requested that its shares remain on a trading halt until it can provide details on investors involved in a $6 billion-plus port and rail project in Western Australia’s iron ore belt. The stock last rocketed 65 percent to A$0.03 on April 11.
New Zealand’s benchmark NZX 50 index added 0.1 percent or 7.3 points to 5,097.8. (Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)