* Gains in material, energy sectors limit losses in financials
* NZ inches up
By Christina Martin
March 22 (Reuters) - Australian shares pared early losses on Thursday to creep higher, after data showed that employment scored another solid increase in February as hiring for full-time positions surged.
The S&P/ASX 200 index inched up 0.03 percent, or 1.7 points, to 5,952 by 0116 GMT. The benchmark closed up 0.2 percent on Wednesday.
Thursday’s figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed 17,500 net new jobs were added in February, the 17th straight month of rises, the longest such run since the series began in 1978.
Australia’s mining and metals index climbed as much as 2.2 percent, hitting over a two-week high, helped by a jump in base metal prices.
Heavyweights BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto gained 2.8 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
Energy stocks rose 1.5 percent to a three-week high as oil prices rallied on a surprise draw on U.S. crude inventories as well as ongoing dollar weakness.
Woodside Petroleum, up as much as 2.5 percent and touching a four-week high.
On the other end of the market, financial stocks led the losses.
The financial index fell as much as 1 percent, posting its biggest intraday percentage loss in a week, with the ‘Big Four’ banks losing between 0.2 percent and 0.8 percent.
The U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates on Wednesday and forecast at least two more hikes for 2018.
“That (rate hike) was completely expected and priced in. The market was more interested in the reiteration of at least another two, potentially three rate rises this year. Thats’s where a little bit of nervousness came,” James McGlew, executive director for corporate stockbroking at Perth-based Argonaut.
“The evidence presented so far in the Royal Commission is not painting a pretty picture of the way they have been managing their home loan portfolios...I can see why there was a resistance to block having an inquiry into banking.”
Real estate stocks also edged lower, with Cromwell Property Group falling the most in over six weeks, down as much as 2.7 percent.
New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index inched up 0.13 percent, or 10.85 points to 8,619.14.
Utility, industrial and energy stocks boosted the index but heavy losses in the healthcare sector limited gains.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) on Thursday held interest rates at a record low of 1.75 percent, as expected, and said monetary policy would remain accommodative for a considerable period. (Reporting by Christina Martin in Bengaluru; Editing by Kim Coghill)