February 12, 2020 / 2:04 AM / 13 days ago

Australia shares up on financials, slowing virus, NZ hits record high

* CBA up 3.5% after smaller-than-expected drop in H1 cash earnings

* Blackmores falls as much as 23.4% after FY profit downgrade

* New Zealand cenbank holds rate at 1%

Feb 12 (Reuters) - Australian shares advanced on Wednesday, powered by financial major Commonwealth Bank of Australia , and as investors drew relief from news that the spread of the coronavirus outbreak in China may be slowing and it may be over by April.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.4% to 7,086.1 by 2352 GMT. The index hit its highest level in nearly three weeks earlier in the session.

Top lender Commonwealth Bank of Australia posted a smaller-than-expected drop in half-year cash earnings, sending its shares more than 3% higher to mark their highest since May 2017.

Wednesday’s gains are mainly driven by CBA results and the market would climb higher in the near-term as earnings results are going to be supportive of current valuation of heavyweight stocks like CBA, said Henry Jennings, senior analyst and portfolio manager at Marcustoday Financial Newsletter.

Underpinning the positive sentiment, a Chinese senior medical adviser said the virus outbreak in the country would hit a peak this month, and the epidemic might be over by April.

The number of deaths in China’s central Hubei province rose by 94 to 1,068 as of Tuesday, while a further 1,638 new cases were detected in the province — the lowest since Jan. 31.

Financials stocks boosted the benchmark, with Commonwealth Bank pushing the sub-index to its highest level since Oct. 31 last year.

Meanwhile, biotech major CSL Ltd, which raised its full-year profit forecast, fell from a record high it scaled earlier in the session to trade 1.5% lower.

Marcustoday’s Jennings attributed the move to investors booking profits after CSL’s “stellar run” so far this year. The stock has gained 18.1% in 2020 as of Tuesday’s close.

Mining sector slipped, with heavyweights BHP Group and Rio Tinto Ltd falling up to 0.5% and 0.9%, respectively.

“Investors are switching from resources into the banking sector following the CBA announcement,” added Jennings.

Vitamin maker Blackmores Ltd slumped as much as 23.4% after the China-exposed firm said it expects profit to more than halve this year due to supply disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak.

Across the Tasman sea, New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index gained as much as 0.7% to hit a record high briefly before the Reserve Bank of New Zealand held the official cash rate at 1%, in line with a Reuters poll.

NZ-listed shares of Westpac Banking Corp advanced up to 0.5%, while Fisher & Paykel Healthcare Corp hit a record high. (Reporting by Sameer Manekar in Bengaluru; editing by Uttaresh.V)

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