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Australia shares inch up; NZ tepid ahead of elections

[SYDNEY] Australian shares broke a three-day losing streak to edge up on Friday, lifted by financial stocks, while New Zealand shares were subdued in lacklustre trade before Saturday's general election.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 15.18 points, or 0.3 per cent, to 5,670.6 at 0228 GMT, but was headed for its fourth weekly loss in five. The benchmark fell 0.9 per cent on Thursday.

"The Australian market has underperformed its region and the globe over the course of this week... so there is an element of catch-up," said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at CMC Markets.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd recovered from early losses to trade marginally higher, while others in the "Big Four" led gains on the index, rising as much as 1.3 per cent each.

Mining giant Rio Tinto gained as much as 1.7 per cent after it said it would buy back an additional US$2.5 billion worth of its shares, dishing out the proceeds from a sale of coal assets earlier than some had expected.

Meanwhile, BHP Billiton and the Australian metals and mining index reversed early gains to fall 0.4 per cent each, hitting over four-week lows.

Gold stocks also slipped as gold prices fell to a near four-week low on Thursday. Newcrest Mining dropped 2.9 per cent to its lowest in over five weeks.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index fell 7.77 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 7,787.64 at 0228 GMT, but was set to finish the week on top.

Fletcher Building Ltd extended losses into a third session, falling as much as 0.8 per cent to an eight-week low.

New Zealand heads into elections on Saturday, with a final opinion poll showing the ruling National Party's lead over the opposition Labour Party slipping to 8.5 points, meaning minor parties could well decide who forms the next government.

"A change of government would be of concern to markets... the nine-year government that is in place has proved to be a steady hand through a number of major issues for New Zealand, including the global financial crisis and the earthquakes that have hit the country," said CMC's Mr McCarthy.

"So I see the markets falling if there is a change of government."

The election has been so hotly contested that the votes of overseas New Zealanders might decide the outcome. Overseas voting results will be published on Oct 7.


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