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Australia shares ease for 4th day as financials drag; NZ higher

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares eased for a fourth consecutive day on Wednesday, dampened by weakness in financial stocks, although gains in the defensive healthcare sector capped overall losses.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 5.7 points to 5,747.2 by 0225 GMT. The benchmark closed 0.1 per cent lower on Tuesday.

Financials are under pressure as they are a currency proxy, said Mathan Somasundaram, market portfolio strategist, Blue Ocean Equities.

"The market is beginning to see a bounce in the US dollar and the Aussie dollar is falling, which means you'll see exposure reduction by global investors in Australia, and that hits the big banks."

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The Aussie is hovering near four-month lows, hurt by the outlook for global growth amid escalating US-China trade tensions.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group posted its eighth straight losing session, down one per cent, while other lenders among the 'Big Four' fell between 0.4 per cent and 0.7 per cent.

Mining giant BHP was marginally higher after having fallen as much as 0.4 per cent. Iron ore on the Dalian commodities exchange snapped a five-day gaining streak on Tuesday, and was 1.3 per cent lower at 0225 GMT.

Weaker bullion hit gold stocks with Newcrest Mining dropping 1.3 per cent.

Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals, however, edged higher. Fortescue saw a rating upgrade to 'buy' from Deutsche Bank.

CSL Ltd led gains among healthcare stocks, rising as much as 2 per cent, its best one-day gain in more than three weeks.

"I think that (healthcare) is pretty much a safety play at this point, as most of the stocks in the healthcare sector like CSL, Cochlear are way overvalued, if you look at it on historical terms," Mr Somasundaram added.

Cochlear, however, was slightly lower for the day.

The biggest power producer in Australia, AGL Energy, rose as much as 0.3 per cent, before trading flat after Alinta Energy, owned by Hong Kong's Chow Tai Fook Enterprises, expressed an interest in acquiring its coal-fired Liddell Power Station in New South Wales state.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.2 per cent, or 16.27 points, to 8,346.2.

Dairy company a2 Milk and Auckland International Airport pushed up the index the most. A2 was up 3 per cent, while Auckland edged 0.8 per cent higher.

The world's biggest dairy exporter Fonterra was marginally lower after it said its New Zealand milk output in February fell 2 per cent.

REUTERS