March 8, 2018 / 1:53 AM / 7 months ago

Australian shares lifted by wider-than-expected trade surplus; NZ gains

* Australia logs A$1.06 bln January trade surplus

* BHP trades ex-dividend, drags material sector down

* NZ benchmark index hits 1-week high

By Christina Martin

March 8 (Reuters) - Australian shares rose on Thursday, with financials leading the gains, after data showed the country had a much larger than expected trade surplus in January.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.5 percent, or 29.8 points, to 5,931.8 by 0116 GMT. The benchmark dropped 1 percent in the previous session.

Australia posted a seasonally adjusted trade surplus of A$1.06 billion ($828.6 million) in January, easily beating a Reuters forecast of A$300 million. In December, there was a deficit of A$1.36 billion.

“We saw poor numbers last time but the trade balance numbers for January saw a sharp decline in imports,” said Peter Spanos, volatility risk manager at Sydney-based CMC Markets. “The Aussie dollar also rose slightly over the release.”

Spanos also said plans by U.S. President Donald Trump to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium “will obviously be seen as negative” for Australia’s material and resource-driven economy.

The head of Australia’s central bank on Wednesday said he was upbeat about domestic economic growth despite a disappointing end to last year, but called the Trump proposal l to impose tariffs “highly regrettable.”

Trump was expected to sign a presidential proclamation to establish the tariffs during a ceremony on Thursday, but a White House official said later it could slide into Friday because documents had to be cleared through a legal process.

Financial stocks in Australia rose as much as 0.8 percent, with the “Big Four” banks gaining between 0.1 and 0.8 percent.

Healthcare stocks and industrial stocks also boosted index gains.

Biotherapeutic firm CSL Ltd rose as much as over 1 percent, while beverage company Coca-Cola Amatil Ltd hit its highest in almost two weeks, up as much as 2.8 percent.

The material sector was the only one in the red, with the metals and mining index down as much as 1.1 percent. It was pulled down by heavyweight BHP, which traded ex-dividend and fell as much as 2.8 percent to an 11-week low.

While Rio Tinto was up about 0.8 percent, other stocks in the sector were down on a slide in commodity prices.

Aluminium prices touched near three-month lows and base metals generally came under pressure from worries about a possible trade war.

Oil prices tumbled on Wednesday after U.S. government data showed an increase in crude inventories and output.

New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index climbed as much as 0.8 percent, hitting its highest in a week. ($1 = 1.2793 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Christina Martin in Bengaluru; Editing by Richard Borsuk)

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