* Healthcare, IT stocks lead ASX advance
* Energy stocks jump on firm oil prices
* Star Entertainment Group top gainer on benchmark
By Pranav A K
March 25 - Australian shares rose on Thursday, with technology and healthcare stocks driving gains, as investors await the passage of a sweeping stimulus package in the United States to ease the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.6% to 5,0281.5 by 0106 GMT, easing slightly from its highest level in more than a week. The benchmark finished 5.5% higher on Wednesday.
U.S. Senate leaders hoped to vote later on a $2 trillion emergency package that still faces criticism despite top White House aides and senior senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties agreeing on the bill on Wednesday.
In Australia, healthcare stocks advanced nearly 3.3% as blue-chip firm CSL Ltd and hospital operator Ramsay Health Care jumped 3.9% and 10.1%, respectively.
“Markets are rallying today on the news out of the U.S... (but) sentiment is still dominated by the uncertainty of what lies ahead and how long it will take to tame the pandemic,” said James McGlew, executive director of corporate stockbroking at Argonaut.
With the virus death toll at nine in Australia, nationwide lockdowns and the resulting business impact has forced companies across sectors to slash jobs and withdraw their earnings outlook.
Flight Centre Travel Group said a third of its 20,000 workers face temporary or permanent redundancy, while Premier Investments shut its retail stores in Australia, saying the closures could impact over 9,000 employees.
Stronger oil prices boosted the energy index about 2.4% higher to its highest in more than a week. Worley Limited was the top percentage gainer, climbing 8.4%, while Oil Search jumped 7.5%.
In the tech space, buy-now-pay-later firm Afterpay Ltd and EML Payments surged 14% and 13.1%, respectively.
Heavyweight financial stocks fell 1.6%, offsetting gains on the benchmark.
Top lender Commonwealth Bank of Australia lost up to 3%, while wealth manager AMP Ltd gave up 1.3% after withdrawing its full-year earnings forecast.
Star Entertainment Group surged 20.9% and was the best performer on the benchmark after Citigroup upgraded the casino operator to “buy”.
Safe-haven gold stocks slipped as much as 3.7%. Gold miner Northern Star Resources tumbled 12.7% after pulling production and cost outlook for the year.
Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index gained 3.8%, or 355.6 points, to 9,619.9.
Software company Gentrack Group Ltd jumped 19.4%, while Tourism Holdings rose 10.5%.
Reporting by A K Pranav in Bengaluru; Editing by Devika Syamnath