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Australia: Shares pull back from 7-yr high amid sluggish economy, earnings

[SYDNEY] Australian shares retreated from multi-year highs on Thursday as weak economic data and mixed corporate earnings reports gave investors little incentive to buy.

Government figures showed business investment fell more than expected in the fourth quarter, while companies' spending plans were also slightly weaker than anticipated.

After reaching a seven-year closing high on Wednesday, the S&P/ASX 200 index fell 0.5 per cent or 28.3 points to 5916.60 points by 0105 GMT.

Major index movers such as Qantas Airways and hospital operator Ramsay Health Care posted upbeat half-yearly profits, while companies exposed to the struggling mining sector like contractor Transfield Services disappointed.

Qantas and Ramsay each rose 5 per cent, while Transfield fell 10 per cent to A$1.47. In December, Transfield rejected a A$2.00 per share takeover proposal from Spain's Ferrovial SA. "We've had very good gains but until we get those catalysts coming through it's hard to get any real impetus from the buy side," said IG Markets strategist Stan Shamu, referring to the weak business spending data. "The earnings today are a bit subdued." Banks led the declines, with Westpac Banking Corp, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group all about half a percentage point lower.

Mining giant Rio Tinto fell 0.6 per cent after another decline in the iron ore price overnight, while rival BHP Billiton rose 0.3 per cent.

Among the biggest market movers, newly listed aged care provider Japara Healthcare jumped 7 per cent after reporting half-yearly earnings grew 28 per cent.

Television broadcaster Nine Entertainment rose 10 per cent after saying it expects the struggling TV advertising market to improve.

New Zealand stocks pushed higher into record territory with the benchmark NZX-50 index up 0.2 per cent at 5853.84 on selective buying of top stocks.

The market's biggest stock Fletcher Building was up 0.8 per cent to a four-month high of NZ$8.82 while the number two stock, telecommunications operator Spark, was 0.6 per cent higher.

Health equipment maker Fisher and Paykel Healthcare rose 1.2 per cent to a lifetime high of NZ$6.78 before trimming its gains slightly.

Accounting software company Xero, a top-10 stock, added to the previous day's 23 per cent surge, rising 7.8 per cent to NZ$24.80, a near-six month high, as investors stayed buoyed by the company replenishing its war chest for product development and market expansion.

REUTERS