September 18, 2019 / 2:50 AM / a month ago

Australia shares softer, dragged by resource sector; NZ down

* Woodside Petroleum, BHP weigh on benchmark

* “Big Four” banks trade lower

* Tech, healthcare stocks climb

By Nikhil Subba

Sept 18 (Reuters) - Australian shares eased slightly in cautious trade ahead of domestic employment data and the U.S. Federal Reserve’s rate decision later on Wednesday, with resource stocks as top drags.

The S&P/ASX 200 index slipped 0.2% or 12.7 points to 6,682.60 by 0207 GMT. The benchmark ended 0.3% firmer on Tuesday.

Australia’s key monthly employment report is due on Thursday, which could influence the central bank’s decision on whether to loosen monetary policy in the coming months.

“Higher unemployment rate or much slower jobs growth - that could be the sort of thing that makes economists talk about the possibility for a rate cut in October,” said Steven Daghlian, market analyst at CommSec.

The U.S. Federal Reserve concludes its two-day policy meeting on Wednesday, and economists widely expect it will cut its benchmark rate for the second time this year by a quarter percentage point.

Investors will look for clues on how far U.S. monetary policy easing will go, given that Fed policymakers are deeply divided on whether more rate cuts are warranted.

The Australian energy sector shed 1.6%, reflecting a fall in oil prices, after Saudi Arabia assured that the Kingdom would restore lost oil production by the end of the month.

Major oil and gas player Woodside Petroleum declined about 3% and was the top drag on the benchmark index, while peer Oil Search slipped almost 2%.

The world’s largest miner BHP Group, which also has a huge exposure to oil, slipped almost 1% and weighed on the main benchmark.

Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd, sensitive to moves in oil prices, rose more than 2% to its highest in over a year, after tumbling about 4.5% in the wake of the attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

Financials, which constitute the lion’s share in the Australian benchmark, fell about 0.5%, with all the “Big Four” banks trading lower.

Gains in the technology and healthcare sectors helped to slightly offset losses among resource stocks, falling about 2% and 1%, respectively.

Logistics software maker WiseTech Global climbed more than 3% to its highest since Sept. 10, while drugmaker CSL advanced almost 1%.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index slid 0.7% or 76.83 points to 10,791.20, dragged lower by consumer stocks.

Dairy company A2 Milk fell as much as 2.5% to its lowest since Aug. 26, while casino operator Skycity Entertainment Group hit a one-week low. (Reporting by Nikhil Subba in Bengaluru; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

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