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Australia: Shares subdued; NZ's Fonterra pressured


[SYDNEY] Australian stocks struggled for direction on Wednesday with the benchmark index still looking for an excuse to push through the 6,000 level that will mark its highest in seven years.

Keeping the overall market afloat were bank stocks, which returned to favour following a day of consolidation. Two of the big four banks hit fresh all-time highs. ANZ rose to A$37.08, while Westpac Bank topped out at A$39.89.

The S&P/ASX 200 index was a mere 0.06 per cent, or 3.4 points, higher at 5,972.5 by 0145 GMT. It continued to stall just ahead of 6,000.0, a level not seen since February 2008. "It is struggling to get up to 6,000. Quite simply we're not seeing a lot of positive news to give us the next leg higher,"said Lucinda Chan, division director at Macquarie Equities.

Ms Chan said worries about slowing growth in China, weak commodity prices and volatile currencies were all weighing on sentiment. Mining stocks were under pressure with BHP Billion shedding 0.5 per cent to A$31.06.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX50 index was marginally weaker at 5,863.3, down 0.12 per cent, as the top two companies paid out dividends and dairy giant Fonterra cut its forecast dividend payout.

The biggest fall was a 5-per cent drop for Fonterra's in shareholders' fund to a low of NZ$5.69, a 14-month trough, after the co-operative reported a sharply reduced first half profit and trimmed it forecast dividend payout.

The fund is based on Fonterra dividends, which it said it expected to be five cents lower to between 20-30 Australia cents a share.

Outdoor goods chain Kathmandu clawed back some of the previous day's losses, rising 2.9 per cent to NZ$1.44 after it had hit a two-month low of $1.39 on Tuesday.

Elsewhere, power generator Contact Energy, the market's number three stock, rose 2.4 per cent to NZ$6.04, with lesser rises for casino operator Sky City and software company Xero.

The top two stocks, Fletcher Building and telecommunications company Spark, were a touch softer, even allowing for their payment of interim dividends.