May 7, 2018 / 6:58 AM / 6 months ago

Australia stocks end slightly higher ahead of 2018 budget; New Zealand gains

* Australia backs off intraday high ahead of 2018 budget

* New Zealand closes higher for fourth straight session (Updates to close)

May 7 (Reuters) - Australian shares ended higher on Monday, as a rise in materials stocks pushed the benchmark higher, although gains were capped as financials eased from intraday highs ahead of the 2018 budget.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.36 percent or 21.6 points to 6,084.5 at the close of trade. The benchmark fell 0.6 percent on Friday.

Risk appetite was dampened ahead of the official 2018 budget on Tuesday. The government has promised tax cuts for lower income earners and flagged multi-billion dollar infrastructure spending.

In equities, metal miners such BHP Billiton and South32 took heart from stronger commodity prices as Chinese iron ore futures rose, while base metal prices also marked gains.

Data showing iron ore shipments to China from Australia’s Port Hedland terminal rose 3.3 percent in April from a month earlier also helped sentiment. The port is a major export terminal for BHP, with China accounting for a large chunk of its exports.

Real estate stocks were also higher, with Scentre Group Goodman Group ending about 1 percent higher.

Financials, which were the largest gainers in the morning, declined to end flat. Westpac Banking Corp and Macquarie Group ended higher, while National Australia Bank capped gains by ending lower for a third consecutive session.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia ended slightly lower. Fitch Ratings downgraded its outlook on CBA’s issuer default rating, citing risks associated with ongoing inquiries into the sector that it says may leave CBA in a weaker operating environment.

Commercial explosives maker Orica Ltd ended more than 6 percent lower, among the biggest drags on the benchmark after its half-year underlying profit slumped.

Across the Tasman Sea, the New Zealand index ended higher for a fourth consecutive session on consumer staples and utilities.

New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.45 percent or 38.57 points to finish the session at 8,587.94.

Dairy producer a2 Milk Co ended 1.2 percent higher, while Contact Energy ended 1.5 percent higher.

A Reuters poll found that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand is widely expected to keep its cash rate at a record low 1.75 percent at its monetary policy meeting on Thursday. (Reporting by Ambar Warrick in Bengaluru Editing by Eric Meijer)

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