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Australia: Shares inch up to fresh 19-month high

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[SYDNEY] Australian shares closed at a 19-month high on Wednesday with gains in financials outweighing the declines in real estate stocks, while the rally in mining stocks eased after prices of base metals weakened.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.06 per cent, or 3.217 points, to 5,736.4. The benchmark extended the previous session's gains to hit its highest close since May 29, 2015. Trading volumes were 0.7 times the 30-day average.

The "Big Four" banks were the index's biggest drivers, with their shares rising between 0.5 per cent and 0.9 per cent. Financials closed at their highest in nearly 17 months.

Materials, which led the rally in the previous session, ended the day flat. Copper prices fell on a strong dollar and nickel dropped on expectations that Indonesia would ease restrictions on ore exports.

Market voices on:

Mining heavyweight Rio Tinto Ltd shed nearly 1 per cent while South32 Ltd shed 0.7 per cent.

Gold miners rose 1.1 per cent as gold prices held their ground in the face of a strong dollar.

Energy stocks recovered some of their losses from earlier in the session to end down 0.1 per cent, as oil prices rebounded after dropping 2 per cent. Woodside Petroleum Ltd closed 0.8 per cent lower.

Real estate stocks were the biggest drag to the main index, with shopping centre operator Scentre Group shedding nearly 2 percent.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index started the year up 1.4 per cent, or 93.08 points, to 6,974.3, its highest close since Oct 25, 2016. Gains were led by healthcare and industrial stocks.

Auckland International Airport Ltd jumped 3.5 per cent and boosted the index most, while medical devices maker Fisher & Paykel Healthcare Corporation Ltd rose 2.9 per cent, its highest close since Nov 18, 2016.