December 7, 2018 / 6:49 AM / 3 days ago

Australian shares snap three weeks of losses; NZ flat

* Aussie shares snap three weeks of losses

* Healthcare stocks boost benchmark

* IOOF shares sink on regulator probe (Updates to close)

Dec 7 (Reuters) - Australian shares closed higher on Friday, snapping three weeks of consecutive losses, as investors were heartened by growing views that the country’s central bank may consider an interest rate cut at some point next year.

Sentiment was also bolstered by speculation that U.S. Federal Reserve will pause its tightening cycle after the widely expected rate hike later this month.

Overall, however, buying was somewhat tempered after this week’s arrest by Canada of a top executive of Chinese tech giant Huawei for extradition to the United States, which threatened to spark a fresh clash between the world’s two biggest economies.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.4 percent or 23.8 points to 5,681.5 at the close of trade for a weekly gain of 0.25 percent. The benchmark lost 0.2 percent on Thursday.

James McGlew, executive director of stockbroking at Argonaut, said the market was supported by the possibility the Australian central bank could cut interest rates next year if wages growth and inflation accelerate.

Reserve Bank of Australia Deputy Governor Guy Debelle said in a speech on Thursday that while the next move in rates is like to be up, there is still room to ease.

The comments come a day after a disappointing reading on domestic economic growth led financial markets to wipe out any probability of a hike in rates next year and even price in a small chance of an easing.

Healthcare stocks drove the gains on the benchmark, with the country’s fifth biggest firm by market value CSL firming 2.6 percent, while Cochlear rose about 3 percent.

Top lender Commonwealth Bank of Australia climbed 1 percent, while the benchmark was also underpinned by a jump in consumer cyclicals. Conglomerate Wesfarmers rose 0.7 percent, while Star Media Group advanced 5.3 percent and was the top percentage gainer on the main index.

However, the metals and mining sector lost 0.5 percent, with index heavyweight BHP Group declining 0.7 percent, hurt by a dip in metal prices.

Shares of Westgold Resources fell 14.4 percent to hit a record low after announcing its plan to divest its non-core lithium royalties at two sites.

Wealth manager IOOF Holdings dived 35.8 percent and was the worst performer on the benchmark after it said Australia’s prudential regulator is looking to disqualify the company’s five top executives, including the CEO, for failing to act in their customer’s interests.

New Zealand’s benchmark closed little changed as gains in consumer cyclicals were offset by a fall in the healthcare sector.

The S&P/NZX 50 index edged up 0.1 percent or 9.10 points to 8,767.32.

Dairy giant A2 Milk rose 2.4 percent, while retirement village operator Ryman Healthcare slumped 1.3 percent. (Reporting by Anushka Trivedi in Bengaluru Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

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