* Financial stocks pare earlier losses as investors move past inquiry
* Energy and real estate lead index gains
* NZ closes at record high helped by healthcare, consumer staples stocks (Updates to close)
By Devika Syamnath
March 19 (Reuters) - Australian shares recovered from early losses to end slightly higher on Monday, though trading was cautious ahead of an expected U.S. interest rate hike later in the week.
While it is widely expected that Federal Reserve will raise rates for the first time this year at its March 20-21 meeting, the key focus remains on whether policymakers forecast four rate hikes this year, instead of the three projected earlier.
The S&P/ASX 200 index inched up 0.2 percent, or 10 points, to 5,959.4. The benchmark ended 0.5 percent up on Friday.
Financial stocks pared earlier losses to end slightly lower as investors seemed to move past an ongoing inquiry into the embattled sector.
“The initial shock value is starting to wear off so its not surprising to see that the banks are holding up a bit better,” said Christopher Conway at the Australian Stock Report.
Westpac Banking Corp ended flat after four sessions of losses while other ‘Big Four’ banks ended 0.1 to 0.6 percent lower.
The year-long Royal Commission heard on Monday Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd lent to customers without due diligence.
“In 3 months no one will care about the Royal Commission because all the shocking revelations will have come out,” added Conway.
Meanwhile, energy stocks ended 1.7 percent higher, buoyed by higher oil prices on Friday. However, renewed concerns of a U.S. supply glut pushed oil lower on Monday.
Origin Energy Ltd and Woodside Petroleum Ltd gained 2.6 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively.
Real estate stocks also rose, with retail property manager Scentre Group ending 1.8 percent higher.
Materials gained in Australia despite a slide in iron ore and base metal prices.
Materials stocks closed up 0.3 percent, marking their fourth straight session of gains, with index heavyweight BHP Billiton finishing 0.2 percent higher.
New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index reversed earlier losses to post another record close, helped by consumer staples and healthcare stocks. The index ended up 0.2 percent or 15.04 points at 8,492.12.
a2 Milk was the top support to the index and closed 1.3 percent higher while Ryman Healthcare finished up 0.9 percent. (Reporting by Devika Syamnath in Bengaluru; Editing by Kim Coghill)