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Australian shares close higher, post best Feb in 4 years; NZ gains

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares ended higher on Thursday and posted their best February performance since 2015, helped by gains in heavyweight financial and mining stocks.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.3 per cent to 6,169.0 at the close of trade. The benchmark rose 0.4 per cent on Wednesday and gained more than 5 per cent for the month, its biggest monthly gain since July 2016.

Financials, the biggest sector in the index, rallied in February after a powerful inquiry into the sector drew to a close without recommending major structural changes to the industry. Mining stocks were stronger owing to better commodity prices and optimism towards China, Australia's largest export market.

For the day, the financial subindex closed 0.8 per cent higher, with lenders Westpac Banking Corp and National Australia Bank ending about 1 per cent and 1.3 per cent higher, respectively.

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The subindex gained about 8 per cent in February, its best month since April 2013.

Elsewhere, the mining subindex ended 0.9 per cent lower, with most stocks losing ground after weaker Chinese factory data, and cautious statements from the Sino-US trade front.

Bucking the trend, miner Rio Tinto closed 1.1 per cent higher after posting its highest annual underlying earnings since 2014.

The mining index rose 6.1 per cent in the month, with its largest member, BHP Group, adding nearly 7 per cent.

Meanwhile, healthcare stocks saw some defensive buying for the day after sentiment was rattled by news from China. Pharmaceutical company CSL Ltd, the fifth largest stock on the ASX 200, closed up 3 per cent at a more than two-week high. The stock serves as a defensive due to its US vaccine business providing a constant revenue stream, seen as relatively unaffected by global factors.

New Zealand shares ended higher as financials and utilities gained, although a drop in consumer stocks checked further gains. The benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.5 per cent or 43.56 points to finish the session at 9,325.03. The New Zealand benchmark gained 3.8 per cent for February. The New Zealand-listed shares of Westpac Banking rose 0.9 per cent, while energy retailer Meridian Energy gained more than 1 per cent.

Defying the bullish trend, milk producer Fonterra plunged after it cut its annual earnings outlook.

REUTERS