Australia shares flat in choppy trade, banks offset weak miners

Reuters - UK Focus

(Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)

SYDNEY, March 28 (Reuters) - Australian shares were almost flat in choppy trade on Friday morning after an uninspiring night on Wall Street, with gains in the financial sector offset by losses in resources firms and a number of stocks traded ex-dividend.

The 'Big Four' banks all posted ample gains to underpin the broader market. Australia and New Zealand Banking Group added 0.8 percent and National Australia Bank gained 0.6 percent.

Spot iron ore prices held near $112 a tonne, though buying appetite among Chinese mills remains limited amid risks steel production may drop if demand does not pick up strongly. Among iron ore miners, BHP Billiton Ltd and Rio Tinto Ltd (Xetra: 855018 - news) slipped 0.1 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively.

The S&P/ASX 200 index added 2.8 points to 5,352.9 by 0105 GMT, with a lacklustre lead from Wall Street overnight crimping demand.

As it stands, the benchmark is 0.3 percent down for the week and 0.9 percent lower for the month. It rebounded 4.1 percent in February and is set to finish flat for the quarter after hitting a 5-1/2 year high of 5,462.3 on March 7.

"The fundamental story locally has turned around, the RBA has turned neutral, the local numbers (including employment data) have been much better than expected which has given a boost to local markets," said Kara Ordway, market maker and trader at City Index in Sydney.

However, Ordway said that the upbeat domestic data in March have been somewhat offset by overseas concerns, including the Ukraine crisis and signs of slowing growth in China - Australia's biggest export market.

Gold dropped around 1 percent overnight, breaking below $1,300 an ounce for the first time since mid-February. Among bullion miners Newcrest Mining Ltd fell 1.9 percent and Regis Resources Ltd tumbled 4 percent.

A handful of stocks eased as they traded ex-dividend. Food giant Woolworths Ltd shed 0.6 percent, insurance company QBE Insurance Ltd (Other OTC: QBEIF - news) lost 1.3 percent, and blood-products maker CSL Ltd (Other OTC: CMXHF - news) fell 0.7 percent.

Elsewhere Patties Foods Ltd declined 2.3 percent while Qube Holdings Ltd dropped 2.2 percent as they were also trading ex-dividend. Pattie Foods announced it has appointed Steven Chaur as managing director and chief executive officer.

Qube said it plans to raise as much as A$230 million through share sales to invest in a new grain handling and storage operation while also funding acquisitions.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index slipped 0.2 percent or 10.3 points to 5,116.3.


(Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)