March 29, 2019 / 6:35 AM / a year ago

Australia, NZ shares firm on trade talk hopes

* Australia clocks best quarter in almost 10 yrs

* BHP, Rio boost benchmark

* NZ’s best quarter since Q4 2015 (Updates to close)

March 29 (Reuters) - Australian shares closed marginally higher on Friday, led by the mining and healthcare sectors, while the benchmark posted its best quarterly gain since September 2009, bolstered by prospects of a breakthrough in U.S.-China trade talks.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.1 percent to finish the week at a high of 6,180.7, in its fourth straight day of gains. The benchmark, which has risen 9.5 percent this quarter, ended 0.7 percent higher on Thursday.

Markets were upbeat as U.S. and Chinese officials conduct talks aimed at resolving the trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday saying he had a “productive working dinner” the previous night in Beijing.

“It may take a while but traders see signs a meaningful trade deal is coming,” Greg McKenna, strategist and founder of McKenna Macro said in a client note.

Australian mining stocks, which are highly exposed to Chinese markets, boosted the benchmark, with industry heavyweight BHP Ltd rising more than 1 percent to its highest in nearly eight years, while Rio Tinto advanced 1.8 percent to a peak of over 10 years.

Shares of Fortescue Metals gained about 3 percent to touch their highest since Feb 2017.

Healthcare stocks also added momentum, with major players CSL Ltd rising about a percent and Cochlear Ltd propping up 0.5 percent.

China, Australia’s top trading partner, is the world’s second-largest healthcare market.

U.S. officials say China has made proposals on a range of issues that go further than it has before, including forced technology transfers and intellectual property security.

Positive expectations around trade talks helped Asian shares rise on Friday, with MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan gaining 0.5 percent, led by a surge in Chinese equities.

However, broader gains were capped by gold stocks, which dropped 2.14 percent and were among top losers on the main index, as improved risk appetite hurt gold’s safe-haven appeal.

New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index gained 0.8 percent to end at another record high of 9,844.95. The benchmark posted its best quarter since December 2015.

The benchmark has risen sharply since the country’s central bank shocked investors on Wednesday by stoking expectations of a rate cut as its next move.

Local shares of Westpac Banking Corp and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd each firmed about one percent.

Reporting by Nikhil Subba in Bengaluru; Editing by Sam Holmes

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