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Aussie shares end at over 3-week high; NZ also up

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares closed higher for a fourth straight session on Monday, tracking a strong finish on Wall Street after the Federal Reserve eased concerns over its monetary policy stance for the year.

The Fed on Friday said it expected economic growth to remain steady and saw no serious risks on the horizon that might pause its planned pace of rate hikes, sending US stocks higher.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.7 per cent, or 42.4 points to 6,042.2, hitting a three-week high.

The 'Big Four' banks fueled much of the gains, rising between 1.3 per cent and 1.9 per cent. The benchmark financials index closed up 1.2 per cent.

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Retailer Woolworths Group closed 2.1 per cent higher while Woodside Petroleum climbed 1.8 per cent.

Top miner BHP Billiton closed 0.6 per cent higher, and served as the biggest boost to the benchmark Metals & Mining index.

Base metal prices climbed on Monday, bolstered by reports over the weekend that base metal imports to China surged in January, underlining the country's healthy demand.

But QBE Insurance Group dropped over 3 per cent after reporting an annual loss of US$1.25 billion, hurt by claims from natural disasters.

The country's second-largest insurer by market size also said it will sell its Latin American business to Zurich Insurance for US$408 million to focus on other markets.

Newcrest Mining shares closed 1.2 per cent lower after announcing it had bought a 27 per cent stake in Canadian miner Lundin Gold for US$250 million.

Mining heavyweight Rio Tinto inched 0.3 per cent lower.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.5 per cent, or 38.81 points, to close at 8,340.53, marking a fourth consecutive session of gains.

Summerset Group Holdings hit a record high and was the top gainer on the index, followed by Z Energy, which closed up 3.6 per cent.

Summerset shares have been on the rise since the company reported a 54 per cent jump in full-year profit on Friday.

REUTERS