Financials drive bourse to fresh high

THE sharemarket closed at a fresh four-year high as gains by financial stocks offset falls by the big miners.

THE sharemarket closed at a fresh four-year high as gains by financial stocks offset falls by the big miners.

At the close on Wednesday, the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index had lifted 16.8 points, or 0.33 per cent, to 5098.7, while the broader All Ordinaries added 14 points, or 0.27 per cent, to 5115.

CMC Markets trader Tim Waterer said although there were no outstanding earnings results there was nothing in the latest batch to discourage investors.

"The result is that ASX 200 forward progression is maintained," he said. "Materials sector weakness was offset by financial sector strength, with the key banking stocks continuing their run of form.

"Overall, stocks continue to saunter higher in the absence of negative headlines."

BHP Billiton fell 35¢ to $38.65 after a 58 per cent fall in first-half profit due to lower commodity prices, a weak US dollar and the sale of some businesses.

Chief executive Marius Kloppers will step down and be replaced on May 10 by Andrew Mackenzie, the 56-year-old Scottish head of BHP's metals business.

Fortescue Metals' first-half profit dropped 40 per cent because of weaker ore prices, and its shares fell 5 per cent to $4.92. Rio Tinto fell $1.12, or 1.6 per cent, to $69.39.

The four big banks all made gains. Commonwealth Bank surged 80¢ to $66.85, ANZ jumped 21¢ to $28.74, National Australia Bank gained 39¢ to $30.56 and Westpac added 5¢ to $30.35.

Wall Street closed firmer overnight on Tuesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining nearly 0.4 per cent to 14,035.75, its highest since October 12, 2007.

National turnover was 1.93 billion securities worth $6.17 billion, with 470 stocks up, 531 down and 343 unchanged.

Meanwhile, bonds finished the local session unchanged, regaining from an earlier weakening in response to improved German economic confidence.

The March 10-year bond futures contract was trading at 96.440 (implying a yield of 3.560 per cent), the same as Tuesday. The three-year contract was steady at 97.090 (2.910 per cent).

UBS interest rate strategist Matthew Johnson said prices moved lower overnight on Tuesday following the release of the German data.

The ZEW Centre for Economic Research report showed German economic sentiment in February at its highest level since April 2010.

"The data was very good and that definitely helped push yields higher (and prices lower)," Mr Johnson said.

Futures prices were likely to continue to weaken over the next few weeks, amid waning expectations the Reserve Bank would cut the cash rate in the next few months, Mr Johnson said.

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