Stocks end a losing year with a whimper

BUYERS kept to the sidelines and the sharemarket closed lower on the last trading day of 2011, a year in which it fell more than 15 per cent.

BUYERS kept to the sidelines and the sharemarket closed lower on the last trading day of 2011, a year in which it fell more than 15 per cent.

After overnight gains of more than 1 per cent in Wall Street's main indices, stocks opened slightly higher but quickly turned negative and slid for most of the session.

The S&P/ASX 200 Index ended

a shortened trading day down

14.5 points at 4056.6.

It lost ground on every day this week.

Only two sectors finished ahead. Industrials edged up 0.04 per cent while consumer discretionaries put on a more substantial 0.6 per cent.

Materials the hardest hit for the week, down almost 3 per cent slipped 0.16 per cent. BHP Billiton ended down 8? at $34.42 while Rio Tinto was steady at $60.30.

The energy sector eased 0.55 per cent and healthcare fell 0.62 per cent.

The big four banks all ended in the red, ANZ losing 12? to $20.53, Commonwealth 11? to $49.22, National Australia Bank 16? to $23.36 and Westpac 15? to $20.

Burrell Stockbroking adviser Jamie Elgar said it was a soft finish to 2011.

"It is a little disappointing considering the lead that we had from Wall Street," he said. "We seem to be disconnected from what's going on on Wall Street, with everyone looking to what is happening in Europe."

Curiously, however, European stocks traded strongly on Thursday night. Italy's much-anticipated debt auction raised ?7 billion

($A9 billion), less than had been

targeted, but the interest rate paid came in below the danger threshold of 7 per cent.

Gold dropped to a low of $US1522.65 an ounce in US trading on Thursday night but staged a comeback to finish the Australian session at $US1555.12, up US92? from its local close on Thursday.

The move reflected a dip in the US dollar as the euro rose in response to the auction results. The Australian dollar put on almost three-quarters of a US cent, ending the local session at $US1.0162 from $US1.0090.