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SYDNEY, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Australian shares dipped 0.3 percent on Thursday, weighed down to one-month lows after Fed minutes showed the U.S. central bank's stimulus programme could be scaled back in the next few months, while investors remained cautious ahead of key manufacturing data from China due later in the day.
Heavyweight finance stocks dragged the market lower with Westpac Banking Corp and Commonwealth Bank of Australia fell 0.7 percent and 0.8 percent respectively. Australia's top investment bank Macquarie Group slipped 0.1 percent.
The banks have had a outstanding year, outperforming the broader market as strong earnings and high dividend yields have boosted their share prices to record highs.
Defensives were also weaker. Telstra Corporation Ltd lost 0.8 percent and consumer staples retailer Woolworths Ltd shed 0.6 percent.
Federal Reserve officials believed they could decide to start scaling back Fed's asset purchase programme at one of its next few meetings, provided this was warranted by economic growth, minutes of the Fed's October policy meeting showed.
The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 22.4 points to 5,285.3 by 0023 GMT, its lowest level since October 18. The benchmark fell 0.8 percent on Wednesday.
"Over recent days, investors in our local market have appeared content to pause and consider their positions, having enjoyed a stellar year to date," said Niall King, sales trader at CMC Markets in a note to clients.
The benchmark index has added 13.9 percent so far this year, hitting a peak on October 28 of 5,457.3. It has since declined to hover at one month lows as investors fret over when the U.S. Fed will begin to taper its bond-buying program.
Analysts said buying support would emerge around the 5,250 point level.
Miners offset broader losses on the index as copper rose overnight, helped by China's plans to make its currency more flexible and market-driven and by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's pledge of support for ultra-easy monetary policy. Rio Tinto Ltd and OZ Minerals Ltd both rose 0.6 percent.
Virgin Australia Holdings jumped 1.8 percent after the airline said its board has decided to continue with its current structure for an entitlement offer.
Elsewhere, Unilife Corp, a developer and supplier of drug delivery systems surged 36.3 percent to A$0.70, a 2-1/2 month high, after the company said it has signed a long-term commercial supply contract with Hikma Pharmaceuticals PLC.
Mining services firm Worley Parsons Ltd recouped a small portion of its losses from the previous session, rising 1.6 percent, after its shares sank on news it was cutting jobs and bracing for lower profits.
New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index fell 0.4 percent to 4,819.7.
Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Eric Meijer