Australia Stocks End Higher but Held Back by Banks, Miners

By Robb M. Stewart Features Dow Jones Newswires

MELBOURNE, Australia--Australian shares gained modest ground Wednesday, although ongoing weakness in several of the major banks and a drop by mining stocks held the market back.

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The broader market shrugged off data showing a big fall in private housing construction in the first quarter and a credit rating downgrade in China, although Moody's move on the world's second-largest economy sparked heavy selling in the iron ore market that weighed on several big-name miners.

After easing in and out of the red, a push in the final minutes of trading lifted the S&P/ASX 200 to finish 8.8 points, or 0.2%, higher at 5769.0.

Government data early in the day showed a fall in construction at the start of the year, adds to a more gloomy picture of the economy after disappointing first-quarter retail sales and trade data.

Meanwhile, Chinese iron-ore futures slumped in the wake of Moody's action, eating into a strong rebound recently for the steelmaking commodity.

Diversified miners BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto fell 0.6% and 1.3%, respectively, and Fortescue Metals Group dropped 4.8%. The three are among the world's largest producers of iron ore.

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Although Commonwealth Bank of Australia edged up almost 0.1%, Westpac Banking lost 0.7%, National Australia Bank dropped 0.5% and Australia & New Zealand Banking slipped 0.1%.

The major banks have been under fresh pressure since the federal government earlier this month said it would introduce a tax on the biggest banks' liabilities from July to help it plug a budget deficit.

For the day, 2.12 billion shares were traded with a value of 6.21 billion Australian dollars (US$4.6 billion), Commonwealth Securities said.

Write to Robb M. Stewart at robb.stewart@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 24, 2017 04:27 ET (08:27 GMT)