Australia shares fall most in over 6 months on virus concerns; NZ slumps


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* ASX benchmark loses up to 2.6%, hits nearly 7-week low

* “Big Four” lenders decline between 1.9% and 2.5%

* Tech stocks down for 6th session, shed nearly 5%

* NZ benchmark slips up to 3.2%, most since Oct 2018

By Sameer Manekar

Feb 25 (Reuters) – Australian shares fell the most in more than six months on Tuesday as fears mounted the new coronavirus outbreak was rapidly developing into a pandemic that will derail global economic growth.

The S&P/ASX 200 index declined as much as 2.6% to its lowest since Jan. 8 and was down 2.3% at 6,816.90 by 2320 GMT, with banking and energy stocks leading the decline.

Selloff was broad-based, with less than 10% stocks in the index trading in the positive territory.

The new flu-like virus has now killed 2,663 people in mainland China and spread to 29 other countries, with a death toll outside of China of about two dozen.

Overnight, all the three major U.S. stock indexes lost between 3.3% and 3.7%, with the energy and technology sectors leading the fall.

Given the big risks, predominantly coronavirus and China shutdown, which is at best a month away, or worse two months, this fall seems like to be just a scratching of the surface, said Mathan Somasundaram, a market portfolio strategist at Blue Ocean Equities.

“If things get messier, this might extend to a bigger fall,” Somasundaram added, advising a defensive position.

Leading the losses in the benchmark stock index, the heavyweight financial sector fell up to 2.6%.

All the “Big Four” lenders slid for a second straight session, with Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Westpac Banking Corp shedding as much as 2.2% and 2.6%, respectively.

The energy sub-index hit its lowest since August-end, as oil prices slumped nearly 4% overnight.

Oil Search lost nearly 5% after the company flagged higher spending in 2020 and reported a drop in annual profit.

Heavyweights Woodside Petroleum and Santos Ltd fell 3.3% and 4.2%, respectively.

The mining sector hit its lowest in more than two months, and was on track for a third consecutive session of fall.

Blue-chip miners BHP Group and Rio Tinto lost 2.5% and 2.7%, respectively.

Tracking Wall Street peers, local tech companies marked their sixth straight session of losses, losing up to 4.8% in their biggest intraday fall since mid-August.

Software-as-a-service firm Xero Ltd shed 4.8%, while buy-now-pay-later firm Afterpay Ltd skidded 6.7%.

In New Zealand, the benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index declined up to 3.2% in its worst session since October 2018 and was last down 2.7% at 11,537.94.

NZ-listed shares of Westpac Banking Corp and electricity generator Meridian Energy were down 2.5% and 3.6%, respectively. (Reporting by Sameer Manekar in Bengaluru; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu)


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