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Australia: Shares inch lower ahead of cenbank meetings; NZ hits record high

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares inched lower on Friday in thin trade as investors awaited key central bank meetings next week before taking any major positions and as losses in industrial and material stocks outweighed gains in energy stocks.

The S&P/ASX 200 index was down 0.1 pe rcent, or 3.4 points, at 6,053.9 as of 0239 GMT. It has gained 1 per cent so far this week, in what could be its first weekly gain in four.

"There's substantial geopolitics playing in. In that context, it is unlikely the market will take any large bets going into the weekend. We've got next week's central bank overload," said Mathan Somasundaram, a market portfolio strategist with Blue Ocean Equities.

The upcoming US Federal Reserve, European Central Bank and Bank of Japan policy meetings, along with a summit between the United States and North Korea, have led markets to take a bit of risk-off, according to Somasundaram.

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Also, the Australian government softened proposed foreign interference laws on Friday to secure parliamentary support for the legislation which threatens to further strain ties with its major trading partner China.

Industrials were the biggest losers with Transurban Group down 1.4 per cent, while rail-road operator Aurizon Holdings Ltd fell 3.7 per cent to its weakest in more than two months.

Mining stocks declined in line with a drop in base metal and iron ore prices. Top miner BHP Billiton slipped 0.5 per cent.

Financials gave up earlier gains. Westpac Banking was the biggest drag on the main board with a drop of up to 0.4 per cent.

Westpac appointed a new chief risk officer amid a financial sector inquiry that has uncovered  malpractices and forced the government to boost regulatory oversight.

Firmer oil prices buoyed energy stocks such as Origin Energy, which advanced 1.8 per cent to its highest in more than two weeks.

Oil prices rose, supported by Venezuela's struggles to meet its supply obligations and by ongoing output cuts led by producer cartel Opec.

Consumer staples stocks gained with Australian shares of a2 Milk Company Ltd adding 2.1 per cent and baby food maker Bellamy's Australia climbing 3.7 per cent.

Gambling house Tabcorp Holdings also rose on news that it would sell its loss-making wagering and gaming joint venture Sun Bets.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index hit a record high and was up 0.1 per cent at 8,909.67 as of 0216 GMT.

Healthcare stocks accounted for most of the gains on the index, which is poised to mark its best week since July 2016.

Retirement village operator Metlifecare gained 3.1 per cent to its highest in over one-and-a-half years.

REUTERS