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Australia: Shares slip as investors take profits below 6,000 level

[SYDNEY] Australian shares edged closer to the crucial 6,000 level before retreating on Monday as investors shrugged off an upbeat lead from offshore markets and cashed in profits from the previous week's rally.

The benchmark index came within five points of the key 6,000 psychological barrier, which it last traded above seven years ago.

"We'll zip through the 6,000 mark but I don't know if it's going to happen today," said PhillipCapital Australia senior client adviser Michael Heffernan. "It's a pretty disappointing beginning to the week, particularly given the performances we saw in Europe and the US, but there was an absence of any economic news anywhere." The S&P/ASX 200 index hit an intraday high of 5,995.0 in the early session, headed for its first foray over 6,000 since February 2008, before backtracking to be down 15.6 points or 0.3 per cent at 5959.9 by 0128 GMT.

US and European stocks ended the previous week posting gains on hopes that declines in both currencies would boost economic growth. Asian stocks followed the lead higher on Monday.

Financial stocks led the market lower, with Commonwealth Bank of Australia down 0.8 per cent, Westpac Banking Corp 0.5 per cent weaker and National Australia Bank down 0.4 per cent.

Mining services firms declined on concerns the sector will be among the hardest-hit by a collapse in mining investment as the sector copes with sharply lower commodity prices. Bradken was down 4 per cent and Transfield Services fell 4.8 per cent, the biggest loser in the benchmark index.

In the large iron ore miners, Rio Tinto eased 0.1 per cent while rival BHP Billiton firmed 1.5 per cent, while Fortescue Metals Group fell 1 per cent.

Retail conglomerate Premier Investments jumped 10 per cent, the biggest gainer, after saying half-yearly net profit rose 9 per cent and declaring a special dividend.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX50 index was down 0.1 percent at 5,865.29, as it consolidated after hitting a record high a week ago.

Telecommunications company Spark, the market's second biggest stock by capitalisation, was leading the market with a 1.8 percent gain.

Smaller gains for other top-10 stocks Contact Energy and software developer Xero, helped to offset softness in casino operator Skycity, down 1 per cent, and the market top stock Fletcher Building, down 0.5 per cent.

Outdoor clothing and equipment retailer Kathmandu was down 4.1 per cent. It is expected to post a loss on Tuesday.

Clothing retailer Hallenstein Glasson was 1.9 percent higher. It has said it expects a profit increase when it reports on Friday.