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Australian Market Modestly Lower

The Australian stock market is modestly lower in choppy trading on Friday following the lackluster cues overnight from Wall Street and as investors digested local corporate earnings results. Gains by the banking sector stocks were offset by weakness in mining and oil stocks.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index is currently losing 13.30 points or 0.23 percent to 5,803.00, after rising to 5,819.90 in early trades. The broader All Ordinaries Index is down 14.20 points or 0.24 percent to 5,848.80.

The major miners are lower. BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are losing almost 2 percent each, while Fortescue Metals is down 3 percent.

Whitehaven Coal's first-half profit surged from last year on higher coal prices and increased production. However, the mining company's shares are losing more than 2 percent.

Among oil stocks, Woodside Petroleum is declining 0.3 percent and Oil Search is advancing more than 1 percent despite an increase in crude oil prices overnight.

Santos said its net loss for the full year narrowed by 46 percent from last year and its net debt was also reduced by 26 percent amid a restructuring. However, the company's shares are declining almost 1 percent.

Meanwhile, the big four banks are mostly higher. Westpac Banking is up 0.2 percent and Commonwealth Bank is rising 0.4 percent, while National Australia Bank is losing 0.6 percent.

ANZ Banking's shares are advancing almost 2 percent after the bank said its first-quarter net profit rose 8 percent from last year and that its expects a full-year charge for bad and doubtful debts to be lower than previously thought.

Gold miners are also higher after gold prices rose overnight. Newcrest Mining is adding more than 1 percent and Evolution Mining is rising almost 4 percent.

Medibank Private's shares are losing more than 3 percent after the health insurer reported a nearly 2 percent increase in half-year profit on slightly higher revenues, but recorded lower returns from its core health insurance business.

ASX Ltd.'s shares are down 0.4 percent even after the stock exchange operator reported a 3 percent increase in first-half net profit on higher cash market and derivatives trading activity.

Virgin Australia Holdings slipped to a loss for the first half of the year on weak passenger demand and restructuring charges. The airline's shares are lower by more than 1 percent.

In the currency market, the Australian dollar is lower against the U.S. dollar on Friday. In early trades, the local unit was trading at US$0.7696, down from US$0.7717 on Thursday.

On Wall Street, stocks closed roughly flat in choppy trading on Thursday as traders expressed some uncertainty about the near-term outlook for the markets following the recent run to record highs. Traders were also digesting another batch of U.S. economic data, including a report from the Labor Department showing a modest increase in initial jobless claims in the week ended February 11.

While the Dow crept up 7.91 points or less than a tenth of a percent to 20,619.77, the Nasdaq edged down 4.54 points or 0.1 percent to 5,814.90 and the S&P 500 dipped 2.03 points or 0.1 percent to 2,347.22.

The major European markets gave back some ground on Thursday following recent strength. While the French CAC 40 Index fell by 0.5 percent, the U.K.'s FTSE 100 Index and the German DAX Index both dipped by 0.3 percent.

Crude oil futures rose Thursday, holding above $53 a barrel amid hints that OPEC will further cut production unless prices move higher. March WTI crude rose $0.25, or 0.5 percent, to settle at $53.36 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

by RTT Staff Writer

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