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Australia: Shares flat as investors wait on key US rates clue


[SYDNEY] Australian shares traded flat on Friday as investors took a breather ahead of crucial US economic data due later in the day and as declining commodity prices sent resources stocks lower.

The US Federal Reserve has said it is considering a December rate hike, and a monthly U.S. jobs report, due later Friday, is seen as a central factor in its decision-making.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell as much as 0.8 per cent but rebounded by mid-session to be up 3.2 points or less than 0.1 per cent higher by 0148 GMT. The benchmark is down 4 per cent so far this year. "There's very little commitment in the market," said CMC Markets chief strategist Michael McCarthy, noting unusually low volumes.

"That (non-farm payrolls announcement) could speak directly to the intentions of the US Fed, and for that reason a lot of investors and traders are now sitting on the sidelines." Iron ore major BHP Billiton was down 3 per cent after the commodity tumbled overnight amid concerns about whether demand will improve from No 1 export country China. Rival Rio Tinto was flat, while BHP spin-off South32 lost 0.5 per cent. Gold miner Newcrest lost 1.6 per cent.

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Energy stocks also fell in line with the oil price. Woodside Petroleum declined 3 per cent, Santos eased 2 per cent and Origin Energy dropped 2.3 per cent.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group fell the most in a mixed financial sector, down 2.6 per cent after trading ex-dividend. Westpac Banking Corp fell 1.5 per cent, Commonwealth Bank of Australia rose 0.4 per cent and National Australia Bank slipped 0.3 per cent.

Ports and rail operator Asciano rose 6 per cent after Canada's Brookfield Asset Management bought a 19 per cent stake, upping the competition in a takeover battle. Australian port company Qube Holdings, which also wants to buy Asciano, fell 3 per cent.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index was steady after a 3-day rally that helped it scale an all-time high of 6,076.72 points.

The New Zealand benchmark is set to end the week about 1.5 per cent higher, having already risen about 9 per cent so far this year.

Cloud-based accounting firm Xero Ltd was the top performer on the index, rising for a second day after earnings came in as expected.

Heartland New Zealand jumped over 3 per cent to its highest level since mid-May after it said it would merge with wholly-owned subsidiary Heartland Bank to help improve efficiency.