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Australian shares steady ahead of financial services report; NZ falls

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares treaded water on Thursday as materials stocks fell on lower copper prices and banks drifted sideways ahead of an interim report due on Friday from a powerful inquiry into the financial services sector.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 0.1 per cent or 7.20 points to 6,185.10 by 0200 GMT. It rose 0.1 per cent on Wednesday.

Materials, especially mining stocks, dominated the losses, hurt by sustained weakness in copper prices.

Copper was on track for fourth straight day of losses on Thursday after falling 0.6 per cent in the previous session.

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Escalating Sino-US trade tensions have pushed the industrial metal 13.4 per cent lower in 2018.

Global miner BHP dropped as much as 1.2 per cent and was the biggest drag on the benchmark, while Rio Tinto Ltd dipped 0.8 per cent.

Energy stocks were also in red, falling 0.4 per cent after three sessions of big gains.

Woodside Petroleum Ltd, the biggest listed oil and gas explorer, fell 0.3 per cent, while Oil Search Ltd fell 1 per cent.

Meanwhile, banks drifted sideways ahead of a high-profile inquiry's interim report due on Friday.

The Royal Commission, as the powerful inquiry is called, has already revealed widespread wrongdoing in Australian financial services, making it the worst-performing ASX sector this year.

The inquiry questioned on Wednesday whether the insurance industry's system of self-regulation should be overhauled amid evidence of widespread misconduct.

Kyle Rodda, market analyst at IG Markets, said the falls in banks and insurance stocks were being driven by speculation around the Royal Commission report.

Index heavyweight Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd fell as much 0.5 per cent to its lowest since July 3, while National Australia Bank Ltd dipped 0.2 per cent.

Across the Tasman Sea, shares of consumer staples and utilities sent New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index 0.5 per cent or 50.04 points to 9,299.81, its lowest in more than a week.

A2 Milk Company Ltd fell as much as 2.5 per cent to a more than two-week low and was the biggest drag on the benchmark, while Meridian Energy Ltd fell 3.2 per cent to its lowest since Sept 12.

Earlier in the day, New Zealand's central bank kept its cash rate steady at a record low on Thursday and said the direction of the next change was still in the balance, citing tepid inflation and a turbulent international outlook.

REUTERS