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Australia shares end lower as banks pull back; NZ slips

[BENGALURU] Australian shares ended slightly lower on Thursday, as financial stocks retreated after a brief bout of buying, while ex-dividend trading Rio Tinto also weighed on the index.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 4.76 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 5,760.9 at the close of trade. The benchmark rose 0.4 per cent on Wednesday.

Top lenders Westpac Banking Corp and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group fell about 0.3 per cent each while National Australia Bank recovered to settle slightly higher.

Earlier, global investors bought into Australian lenders, attracted by a strong dollar, pushing banks higher, said Mathan Somasundaram, market portfolio strategist at Blue Ocean Equities. "The minute they finished their buying, the selling pressure kicked in, and banks have now gone back to negative territory." Rio Tinto, trading ex-dividend, was the biggest drag on the index. The mining giant fell 2.1 per cent to close at its lowest in a week, while BHP Billiton gave up gains to slip 0.5 per cent.

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Shares of Woolworths Ltd dipped 0.8 per cent after Australia's antitrust regulator said it was concerned BP Plc's plan to buy the petrol stations of the grocery giant would hurt competition, a sign it may block the A$1.8 billion (S$1.93 billion) deal.

Meanwhile, gold stocks finished the session strong, backed by solid yellow metal prices. Newcrest Mining rose 3.8 per cent to post its highest close in over seven weeks, and kept the index from slipping further.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index pulled back from an all-time intraday high, closing 9.93 points, or 0.1 per cent, lower at 7,789.71.

Spark New Zealand pinned the index down, falling 1.8 per cent, while Air New Zealand dropped 1.5 per cent to close at its lowest since July 25.

Meanwhile, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand stuck firmly to its neutral stance, saying there was no need to cut rates given a likely pick-up in inflation and appeared to be less worried about the country's strong currency than some expected.