Australia shares flat in choppy trade, banks offset weak miners

Reuters - UK Focus

(Adds analysis, quotes, stocks on the move)

SYDNEY, March 28 (Reuters) - Australian shares were almostflat in choppy trade on Friday morning after an uninspiringnight on Wall Street, with gains in the financial sector offsetby losses in resources firms and a number of stocks tradedex-dividend.

The 'Big Four' banks all posted ample gains to underpin thebroader market. Australia and New Zealand Banking Group added 0.8 percent and National Australia Bank gained0.6 percent.

Spot iron ore prices held near $112 a tonne, though buyingappetite among Chinese mills remains limited amid risks steelproduction may drop if demand does not pick up strongly. Amongiron ore miners, BHP Billiton Ltd and Rio Tinto Ltd (Xetra: 855018 - news) slipped 0.1 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively.

The S&P/ASX 200 index added 2.8 points to 5,352.9 by0105 GMT, with a lacklustre lead from Wall Street overnightcrimping demand.

As it stands, the benchmark is 0.3 percent down for the weekand 0.9 percent lower for the month. It rebounded 4.1 percent inFebruary and is set to finish flat for the quarter after hittinga 5-1/2 year high of 5,462.3 on March 7.

"The fundamental story locally has turned around, the RBAhas turned neutral, the local numbers (including employmentdata) have been much better than expected which has given aboost to local markets," said Kara Ordway, market maker andtrader at City Index in Sydney.

However, Ordway said that the upbeat domestic data in Marchhave been somewhat offset by overseas concerns, including theUkraine crisis and signs of slowing growth in China -Australia's biggest export market.

Gold dropped around 1 percent overnight, breaking below$1,300 an ounce for the first time since mid-February. Amongbullion miners Newcrest Mining Ltd fell 1.9 percent andRegis Resources Ltd tumbled 4 percent.

A handful of stocks eased as they traded ex-dividend. Foodgiant Woolworths Ltd shed 0.6 percent, insurancecompany QBE Insurance Ltd (Other OTC: QBEIF - news) lost 1.3 percent, andblood-products maker CSL Ltd (Other OTC: CMXHF - news) fell 0.7 percent.

Elsewhere Patties Foods Ltd declined 2.3 percentwhile Qube Holdings Ltd dropped 2.2 percent as they were also trading ex-dividend. Pattie Foods announced it hasappointed Steven Chaur as managing director and chief executiveofficer.

Qube said it plans to raise as much as A$230 million throughshare sales to invest in a new grain handling and storageoperation while also funding acquisitions.

New Zealand's benchmark NZX 50 index slipped 0.2percent or 10.3 points to 5,116.3.

(Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

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