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Australia: Shares lifted by wider-than-expected trade surplus; NZ gains

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares rose on Thursday, with financials leading the gains, after data showed the country had a much larger than expected trade surplus in January.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.5 per cent, or 29.8 points, to 5,931.8 by 0116 GMT. The benchmark dropped 1 per cent in the previous session.

Australia posted a seasonally adjusted trade surplus of A$1.06 billion (S$1.09 billion) in January, easily beating a Reuters forecast of A$300 million. In December, there was a deficit of A$1.36 billion.

"We saw poor numbers last time but the trade balance numbers for January saw a sharp decline in imports," said Peter Spanos, volatility risk manager at Sydney-based CMC Markets. "The Aussie dollar also rose slightly over the release."

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Mr Spanos also said plans by US President Donald Trump to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium "will obviously be seen as negative" for Australia's material and resource-driven economy.

The head of Australia's central bank on Wednesday said he was upbeat about domestic economic growth despite a disappointing end to last year, but called the Trump proposal to impose tariffs "highly regrettable."

Mr Trump was expected to sign a presidential proclamation to establish the tariffs during a ceremony on Thursday, but a White House official said later it could slide into Friday because documents had to be cleared through a legal process.

Financial stocks in Australia rose as much as 0.8 per cent, with the "Big Four" banks gaining between 0.1 and 0.8 per cent.

Healthcare stocks and industrial stocks also boosted index gains.

Biotherapeutic firm CSL Ltd rose as much as over 1 per cent, while beverage company Coca-Cola Amatil Ltd hit its highest in almost two weeks, up as much as 2.8 per cent.

The material sector was the only one in the red, with the metals and mining index down as much as 1.1 per cent. It was pulled down by heavyweight BHP, which traded ex-dividend and fell as much as 2.8 per cent to an 11-week low.

While Rio Tinto was up about 0.8 per cent, other stocks in the sector were down on a slide in commodity prices.

Aluminium prices touched near three-month lows and base metals generally came under pressure from worries about a possible trade war.

Oil prices tumbled on Wednesday after US government data showed an increase in crude inventories and output.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index climbed as much as 0.8 per cent, hitting its highest in a week.

REUTERS