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Australia shares end flat as healthcare hurts, utilities batter NZ

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares ended flat on Wednesday as gains in miners were offset by profit-taking in the healthcare sector, while New Zealand's market was hit by steep losses for energy stocks after Rio Tinto said it plans to shut a power-guzzling smelter.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index was little changed at 6,673.10 points, having advanced 0.3 per cent on Tuesday.

Healthcare firms were the among the worst performers, falling as much as 1.5 per cent during the session before ending 0.4 per cent lower.

"It's simply a bit of profit-taking or rebalancing of portfolios right now in the health space," said Brad Smoling, managing director at Smoling Stockbroking.

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Buying of defensive stocks has pushed the sector up nearly 30 per cent this year, making it one of the top gainers on the ASX 200.

Australia-listed shares of Resmed Inc declined 2.7 per cent, while Sonic Healthcare lost and Pro Medicus lost 1.3 per cent and 6.1 per cent, respectively.

Financial stocks were slightly lower, with No 2 lender Westpac Banking Corp falling 0.2 per cent. The bank said its cash earnings in the second half of 2019 would be reduced by about US$233 million due to customer remediation programmes.

In the mining sector, heavyweight Rio Tinto Ltd rose 0.4 per cent after it flagged a possible pullback or closure of an "unprofitable" aluminium smelter in New Zealand.

Fortescue Metals Group ended up 2.2 per cent, a day before it is due to report its first-quarter production results.

Gold stocks rose 0.3 per cent, as bullion prices inched up from increased tensions over Brexit.

Miner Gold Road Resources Ltd rocketed 12 per cent and was the largest gainer on the ASX 200 after RBC upgraded the stock.

New Zealand shares clocked their worst intraday session in more than two months, as utilities were stung by Rio Tinto's plan to shut its aluminium smelter, the largest single power consumer in the country.

The benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index declined 2.1 per cent or 236.60 points to 10,853.79.

Meridian Energy Ltd slid nearly 8.7 per cent to a near two-month closing low. The company is the main supplier of electricity to the Rio Tinto smelter.

Peers Contact Energy Ltd and Mercury NZ Ltd fell 9.7 per cent and 8.4 per cent, respectively.

Brokerage UBS in a note said that closure of the site "would have significant short, medium and long-term consequences across the New Zealand utilities space and more broadly for New Zealand". 

REUTERS