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Australia: Shares fall for a second day; earnings disappoint

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[SYDNEY] Australian shares fell for a second straight session on Friday, nearly wiping out the week's gains as lower commodity prices and corporate earnings continued to disappoint.

Medibank Private, Australia's leading health insurer, fell about 4 per cent, the most since its listing last year, after it warned that rising healthcare costs were causing customers to cut back on insurance.

Uncertainty in the euro zone continued over the debt negotiations with Greece, adding to investor caution, analysts said.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 0.22 per cent or 12.73 points to 5,891.5 by 0120 GMT. The benchmark eased 0.2 per cent on Thursday.

Analysts expected broad-based selling to continue into afternoon session ahead of the weekend. They said volumes remained high despite Lunar New Year holidays in China and some other Asian countries.

The index, which is up about 9 per cent so far this year, is expected to give up gains as valuations remain high. It is trading at 14.2 times its 12-month forward earnings, higher than its 10-year average.

Energy-related stocks fell with Santos, Woodside and Origin Energy down 1-3 per cent.

Major miner BHP Billiton was down 0.5 per cent while Rio Tinto rose 0.7 per cent. The Big Four banks including Commonwealth Bank and Westpac fell 0.3-0.5 per cent.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX50 index edged up 24.3 points or 0.4 per cent to 5,750.55, as an ongoing rise in Xero helped the market claw back from a two-week low of 5,717.05 hit in earlier trade.

REUTERS