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Australia shares end at over 11-year high on rate cut hopes; NZ rises

[SYDNEY] Australian shares ended at a more than 11-year high on Wednesday with banking and healthcare stocks leading gains, as weak inflation data boosted prospects of a rate cut as early as May, while New Zealand scaled a record peak.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 1 per cent, or 62.70 points, to 6,382.10, its highest since December 2007. The benchmark had gained 1 per cent on Tuesday.

Data showed inflation slowed sharply last quarter to the lowest in three years, raising expectations for an interest rate cut, perhaps as early as May.

The muted figure comes after the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) said earlier this month that if inflation failed to accelerate as desired and unemployment were to suddenly trend higher, then rates would need to be cut from an already record low of 1.5 per cent.

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Market voices on:

"Australian inflation shows no signs of coming anywhere near the central point of the RBA's 2-3 per cent range, and we are biting the bullet and changing our 'on-hold' call for the RBA to a cut, possibly as early as the May 7 meeting," said ING Economics in a research note.

"...we can't now see how the RBA can ignore such a bad inflation miss, even with last week's strong employment gains."

The Australian dollar tumbled to six-week lows on the tepid inflation data, helping export-oriented healthcare stocks such as drug manufacturer CSL Ltd end 2.4 per cent higher.

The healthcare index saw its best day in nearly four months, gaining 2.4 per cent.

Financial stocks continued their strong rally to end higher for a seventh consecutive session. The index rose 1.3 per cent, with the "Big Four" banks gaining more than 1 percent each.

The "Big Four" banks are due to announce their earnings next week.

Elsewhere, mining and gold stocks led losses in an overall upbeat market on weak iron ore and gold prices.

As gold prices hovered around a four-month low touched in the previous session, the local gold sub-index extended losses to a fourth straight day to close about 0.8 percent lower.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.7 per cent to close at a record high of 10,071.74. The index had added 0.5 percent on Tuesday.

Heavyweights a2 Milk Company and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare climbed about 2.3 per cent each.

Markets in Australia and New Zealand will remain shut on Thursday for Anzac Day.

REUTERS