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Australia shares end lower amid global equity sell-off; NZ also falls

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares closed at their lowest level since February 2017 on Wednesday as worries of slowing global growth and a plunge in oil prices triggered a global equity sell-off.

The S&P/ASX 200 index clawed back some early losses but still closed 0.51 per cent or 29.00 points lower at 5,642.800. The benchmark fell 0.4 per cent on Tuesday.

Miners were the biggest drag on the index, dropping 2.9 per cent to four-week low after iron ore prices fell 1.8 per cent.

Global miner BHP and its rival Rio Tinto Ltd both tumbled by 3.3 per cent each.

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Weighed by the plunge in oil prices on Tuesday, energy stocks slumped 2.5 per cent to an eight-month low.

Even though oil recovered some of the losses on Wednesday, overall market weakness remained little changed. Shares of Woodside Petroleum Ltd fell 2.1 per cent, while Santos Ltd tumbled 4.4 per cent.

However, financial stocks recovered late in trade to inch up, with Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the country's top lender, gaining 1.2 per cent and National Australia Bank Ltd rising 0.7 per cent.

"The big banks are a safe bet in troubled waters... their underlying profit remains very strong. When we see buying come into the market, it tends to come through CBA to begin with... because of its large exposure to the domestic market," said James McGlew, executive director of corporate stockbroking at Argonaut.

Mr McGlew added that sanity seemed to return after the initial selling, saying "CBA is always seen as the safest bet amongst them, and they're all at a point where the price and dividend yield is too attractive to ignore."

The healthcare index, a defensive sector which benefits during uncertain periods and broader sell-offs, rose 1.5 per cent at close.

Sector heavyweight CSL Ltd rose 1.7 per cent and Cochlear Ltd firmed 2.3 per cent.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index slipped 0.55 per cent or 47.9 points to finish the session at 8,672.400.

Dairy giant a2 Milk Co Ltd fell 3.4 per cent at close and was among top drags on the main index.

But online marketplace operator Trade Me Group closed 16.3 per cent higher after a takeover offer by private equity player Apax Partners.

REUTERS