Buoyant healthcare sector keeps lid on losses

THE sharemarket closed flat despite a sell-off triggered by disappointing trade balance numbers. The benchmark S&P/ASX200 index closed down 3.1 points, or 0.07 per cent, at 4333.9 points while the broader All Ordinaries index eased 5.5 points, or 0.12 per cent, to 4418.9.

THE sharemarket closed flat despite a sell-off triggered by disappointing trade balance numbers. The benchmark S&P/ASX200 index closed down 3.1 points, or 0.07 per cent, at 4333.9 points while the broader All Ordinaries index eased 5.5 points, or 0.12 per cent, to 4418.9.

Options Xpress analyst Ben Le Brun said the bourse was resilient in afternoon trade following figures on Australia's trade deficit, which had narrowed, but not as much as hoped.

The trade deficit fell to $480 million in February, from $971 million in January.

"There was obviously a knee-jerk reaction to the international trades and goods and services data," Mr Le Brun said. "We've seen the Aussie dollar fall, which has supported some ends of the market. Certainly, the healthcare sector has been one of the best performers."

ResMed was up 2.67 per cent at $3.08, Ramsay Health Care gained 2.54 per cent to $19.77, Primary Health Care put on 2.52 per cent to $2.85, Cochlear rose 1.62 per cent to $62.55 and CSL appreciated 1.49 per cent to $36.

Mr Le Brun said a continuation of soft economic data could prompt the Reserve Bank to cut interest rates in May, having kept them on hold this week.

He said insurer QBE had held up the financial sector, rising 47?, or 3.38 per cent, to $14.37.

QBE said it expected premiums to rise by 7 per cent in 2012 after one of the worst years for catastrophic events last year.

The banks were mixed. ANZ was up 2? at $23.01, Westpac gained 30?, or 1.37 per cent, to $22.12, National Australia Bank put on 18? to $24.79 and Commonwealth Bank eased 14? to $49.90.

Shares in Transfield Services closed down 11.65 per cent at $2.20 after the construction and maintenance firm cut its full-year profit forecast by about a fifth.

In other news, the competition regulator has suspended its clearance process for AGL Energy's purchase of Australia's largest brown coal power station, Loy Yang in Victoria. AGL shares were steady at $14.83.

The spot gold price in Sydney was $US1636.95 per ounce, down $US41.72. Newcrest, Australia's biggest gold producer, fell 69?, or 2.36 per cent, to $28.50.

National turnover was 2.1 billion securities worth $4.5 billion.

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