Negative offshore data leaves market in the red

THE sharemarket followed negative leads from overseas to edge lower after disappointing economic data from debt-riddled Europe.

THE sharemarket followed negative leads from overseas to edge lower after disappointing economic data from debt-riddled Europe.

The benchmark ASX 200 index was down 6.9 points, or 0.16 per cent, at 4286.2, while the broader All Ordinaries fell 4.6 points to 4367.5.

The March share price index futures contract closed 13 points weaker at 4260 on a volume of 23,407 contracts.

The IG Markets strategist, Stan Shamu, said soft manufacturing and services data from Europe dampened risk sentiment among investors. It came hot on the heels of disappointing export and manufacturing data from China a day earlier.

"Investors are still hesitant ... due in part to persistent concerns about how bad things can go in Europe, and partly due to uncertainty on how China will manage in its attempt to engineer a soft landing," Mr Shamu said.

Energy stocks rose after oil prices jumped to nine-month highs, driven by concerns about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons activities.

Shares in Oil Search rose 11? to $7.07 while Woodside rose $1.22, or 3.3 per cent, to $38.08.

Origin was up 26? at $14.05 after the integrated energy company posted a half-yearly net profit of $794 million, compared to a $136 million loss for the previous corresponding period.

Among other companies reporting results yesterday, David Jones reported a 3.1 per cent fall in sales in the December quarter to $598.5 million. The company's shares fell 2? to $2.55.

Insurance Australia Group's first-half profit fell by 10.6 per cent as insurance claims exceeded allowances but the company upgraded its forecast for full-year revenue growth. The report was well received, with the stock surging 24?, or 8.28 per cent, to $3.14.

The Fairfax Media chief executive, Greg Hywood, said difficult trading conditions were expected to continue as the company reported lower first-half profits and continued its transformation. The shares dipped 0.5? to 82?.

In other news, about 330 jobs may be at risk at BHP Billiton's Tasmanian manganese alloy plant as it reviews the 50-year-old operation. BHP fell 18? to $36.23 while rival Rio Tinto fell $1.02 to $67.51.

Banks were lower, with National Australia Bank down 24? at $23.21.

Steel maker and miner OneSteel surged for a third consecutive day after its first-half results, in which it flagged an improved second-half result and job cuts following a $74 million interim net loss The shares rose 20?, or 21.05 per cent, to $1.15.

The spot price of gold in Sydney was trading at $US1773.50 an ounce, up $US17.25.

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