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Australian shares led higher by Wesfarmers, jobs data; NZ also gains

[BENGALURU] Wesfarmers Ltd led Australian stocks higher on Thursday after the conglomerate reported a jump in profit and wider margins, defying a retail downturn in the country, while robust January jobs data boosted overall sentiment.

Wesfarmers shares' near 7 per cent rise was the biggest boost to the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index, helping it close 0.7 per cent higher at 6,139.20.

Investors took heart from Wesfarmer's 10.4 per cent rise in profit, after official data earlier this month showed retailers had their worst quarter in a year in December, as a property downturn hit consumer confidence and earnings at companies from grocers to mechanics.

The country's biggest supermarket chain Woolworths Group Ltd had warned on Wednesday of a prolonged slump in consumer sentiment as it posted a lower-than-expected first-half profit.

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"Not only is that (jump in profit) good news for Wesfarmers shareholders, it is also a positive for the Australian economy overall," said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at CMC Markets.

Meanwhile, data showed jobs growth surpassed expectations in January, while the jobless rate stayed at seven-year lows.

That initially strengthened the Australian dollar, bit the currency as soon pulled down by a forecast of rate cuts from Australia's second-biggest lender Westpac Banking Corp.

The currency's changing fortunes sent shares of miners lower earlier in the session, before they recouped losses as Aussie dollar's strength waned.

A stronger local unit reduces earnings for miners that export the vast majority of their US dollar-denominated products.

Australia-listed shares of global miners Rio Tinto and BHP Group ended the day slightly lower after falling as much as over 1 per cent each earlier.

Meanwhile, gold stocks fell 2.4 per cent, with St Barbara finishing 8 per cent lower.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.6 per cent, or 51.37 points to 9,300.81.

Fisher & Paykel Healthcare was the biggest boost to the benchmark, after agreeing with US-based ResMed to settle all disputes over patent infringement.

REUTERS