February 13, 2020 / 6:50 AM / 6 days ago

Australia shares end higher on financials; virus concerns weigh

(Updates to close)

By Soumyajit Saha

Feb 13 (Reuters) - Australian shares ended higher on Thursday on gains in financial stocks, although the benchmark pulled back from a record peak hit early in the session as new coronavirus cases in China surged.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index close 0.2% higher at 7,103.2. The index closed 0.5% higher on Wednesday.

National Australia Bank Ltd, the country’s third-biggest lender, rose 1.4% to a near three-month high after it said it was considering a fresh share sale and would revamp its strategy.

That helped the wider financials index rise as much as 1% to its highest since Oct. 28.

Gains in shares of Australia’s top power producer AGL Energy , which ended 3.6% higher, also supported the main index. The company said it expects full-year profit to be at the higher end of its forecast range given in August.

However, broader risk sentiment was pressured by a record rise in the daily death toll from the virus outbreak in China, Australia’s largest trading partner.

“Clearly the coronavirus is at the heart of market considerations at the moment ... every major market in the region is in the red now,” said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at CMC Markets.

A slew of poor corporate earnings also weighed on the benchmark, with Woodside Petroleum, the country’s top independent gas producer, ending lower after it reported a slump in annual underlying profit and warned the virus epidemic was hampering its efforts to seal gas deals.

No.1 telco Telstra Corp fell 1.6% to close at a more than five-week trough after it posted a lower half-year profit and a federal court approved a merger of its rivals TPG Telecom and Vodafone’s Australian joint venture.

The approval, however, sent shares in TPG Telecom to their highest since September 2018.

Fuel retailer-cum-convenience-store operator Caltex Australia ended over 2% higher on a sweetened buyout offer of A$8.80 billion ($5.91 billion) from Canada’s Alimentation Couche-Tard.

Across the Tasman sea, New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index ended slightly lower at 11,880.84, snapping two straight sessions of gains.

Dairy firm Synlait Milk slumped 18% and was among the top drags after it flagged a drop in full-year profit due to registration delays of infant formula brands in China and the coronavirus outbreak.

$1 = 1.4890 Australian dollars Reporting by Soumyajit Saha in Bengaluru; Editing by Aditya Soni

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