Australia Stocks Seesaw, With Miners Strong, Banks Weak

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Australian stocks meandered along the break-even mark early Monday, kicking off what may be a subdued a week, given holidays in the U.S. and China. The S&P/ASX 200 was little changed about a half an hour into trade, seemingly resting after the index's 2.3% rally on Friday. An improvement for hard-hit iron-ore prices sparked sharp gains for the sector, with Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. up 4.3%, BC Iron Ltd. up 3.4%, and Atlas Iron Ltd. surging more than 10%. Among the senior miners, BHP Billiton Ltd. rose 1.8%, and Rio Tinto Ltd. added 1.5%, even as the Australian Financial Review reported that top customer China had lifted a ban on the pair's biggest rival, Vale SA of Brazil, that had prevented it from docking at Chinese ports, "a decision which could see Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton displaced as the lowest cost producers of the key steel-making commodity." But banks offered a drag on the market, with National Australia Bank Ltd. down 0.5%, Macquarie Group Ltd. down 1.1%, and smaller rural lender Bendigo & Adelaide Bank Ltd. falling 2.6% afer posting a strong increase in first-half profit but also saying that a deleveraging trend in the mortgage market, with homeowners increasingly paying down debt, had affected Bendigo's growth. Australia & New Zealand Banking Group edged 0.2% lower after briefly trading higher following an announcement of a new chief executive for its Australian operations. Back on the earnings front, freight-rail operator Aurizon Holdings Ltd. rose 0.3% after reporting a fiscal first-half profit almost three times larger than what it saw a year earlier. Also among the notable movers, Goodman Fielder Ltd. rose 4.7% after Chinese regulators reportedly approved the pending buyout of the food producer. Meanwhile, the week ahead was studded with holidays, including a Monday closure in the U.S. for President's Day, and several days off at the end of the week for Chinese markets, due to the Lunar New Year.

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