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Australian shares flat as financials fall; NZ tepid

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares were flat on Thursday, as a decline in financial stocks, weigh by a fall in the local currency and mortgage concerns, offset gains in energy firms.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 1.40 points to 5,920.20 by 0246 GMT. The benchmark added 0.6 per cent on Tuesday. Australian markets were closed for a public holiday on Wednesday.

Banks accounted for most of the losses on Thursday, with the Australian financial index posting its biggest intraday percentage drop in more than two weeks.

Westpac Banking Corp, the country's second-biggest bank by market value, dropped as much as 4.4 per cent to its lowest in nearly two years and was the biggest drag on the benchmark.

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UBS analysts downgraded Westpac's rating to "sell" from "neutral", and cut its price target to A$26.5 from A$31. The analysis said Westpac mortgages data showed its debt-to-income ratio was much higher than initially thought. The other three major Australian banks fell between one to 1.6 per cent.

Mathan Somasundaram, Market Portfolio Strategist at Blue Ocean Equities, said banks have also been hit by a sharp decline in the Australian dollar.

The local dollar broke below key chart support to hit a four-month trough on Tuesday, as the greenback got a boost from higher inflation expectations and higher US Treasury yields.

Going in the other direction, energy stocks were among the best-performers on the benchmark buoyed by a rise in oil prices.

Woodside Petroleum Ltd climbed 1.6 per cent to a more than 2-1/2 month high, while Origin Energy Ltd firmed 1.8 per cent.

Australia's second biggest private hospital owner Healthscope clocked a record gain of 16.3 per cent, supporting the broader healthcare sector, which rose about 1 per cent to its highest in more than five-weeks.

The Melbourne-based company, owner of 45 facilities across the country, received a US$3.1 billion buyout approach from domestic private equity firm BGH Capital and pension fund AustralianSuper.

Biotherapeutics company CSL Ltd ticked up 0.9 per cent to a more than one month high, while Sonic Healthcare Ltd rose as much as 1.4 per cent to its highest since March 20.

In New Zealand, the benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 3.68 points to 8,292.32.

Gains were concentrated in the healthcare sector, with Fisher & Paykel Healthcare Corporation Ltd firming 2.1 per cent, accounting for most of the gains on the benchmark.

REUTERS