ASX closes flat, execs show better outlook

Australia's share market closed little changed on a day when executives showed more confidence giving earnings guidance as they better understand COVID-19 trading.

The S&P/ASX200 benchmark index closed lower by 6.8 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 6850.1 on Thursday.

The All Ordinaries closed down by 11.7 points, or 0.16 per cent, at 7122.1.

Telecommunications was the top sector, up 0.85 per cent, after investors liked Telstra's steady interim dividend of eight cents per share. The carrier closed higher by 2.52 per cent to $3.25.

The next best sector was materials, up 0.62 per cent, after the iron ore price rose 2.57 per cent to $US159.5 (China Port).

The ASX movement reflected US markets, little changed after investors moved from big tech stocks to energy shares.

Oil prices rose for a ninth day, supported by producers' supply cuts and hopes that vaccinations will help demand.

Company earnings dominated investor attention in Australia.

Shaw and Partners chief investment officer Martin Crabb said Telstra produced the surprise.

Investors backed the telco despite first-half profit slipping by 2.2 per cent to $1.1 billion, as customers migrated to the NBN and COVID-19 reduced sales.

"Now the NBN has been rolled out, discounting has come to an end and the company is more upbeat about its future," Mr Crabb said.

The initial rollout of the network was completed last year.

Gold miner Newcrest was a notable performer. It improved net profit after tax by 134 per cent helped by higher gold prices. Shares rose 4.05 per cent to $26.22.

Mr Crabb said executives reporting on Thursday were more forthcoming with earnings guidance than in recent months.

"We're having more idea what the economy will look like with coronavirus," he said.

"We've seen some companies reinstate dividends, so that has been good news for shareholders.

"The forward-looking statements are a little more buoyant."

Not everyone had good news. AMP shareholders will not receive a final dividend for 2020 after the company endured a tough 12 months and takeover talks with Ares Management ended.

US-based Ares says it will not continue with its $1.85 per share takeover bid, but talks for AMP Capital continue.

In full-year results, AMP reported underlying net profit of $295 million, compared with $439 million the previous year, reflecting the impacts of COVID-19.

Shares closed down by 11.04 per cent to $1.37.

Energy generator and retailer AGL reported a massive bottom-line loss and said the outlook for the financial year looked challenging.

The net loss was $2.3 billion for the six months ended December, compared to a profit of $323 million in the previous corresponding half year.

AGL will pay a first-half dividend of 41 cents per share.

Shares closed higher by 1.25 per cent to $11.30.

Crown Resorts has promised "root and branch' changes to satisfy regulators threatening to deny it a Sydney gaming licence, ahead of the April expiry of the venue's liquor licence.

Three directors have left the board since an inquiry on Wednesday found the company allowed money laundering.

Shares were higher by 2.45 per cent to $10.05.

In mining, BHP rose 0.93 per cent to $45.48, Fortescue declined by 0.25 per cent to $23.69 and Rio Tinto gained 1.1 per cent to $118.72.

In banking, the Commonwealth was best of the big four, following its first-half earnings on Wednesday.

Shares were up 1.08 per cent to $87.05.

On Friday, developer Mirvac will give first-half earnings, while Genworth Mortgage Insurance will give full-year earnings.

The Aussie dollar was buying 77.45 US cents at 1714 AEDT, higher from 77.38 US cents at Wednesday's close.

ON THE ASX

* The S&P/ASX200 benchmark index closed lower by 6.8 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 6850.1 on Thursday.

* The All Ordinaries closed down by 11.7 points, or 0.16 per cent, at 7122.1.

* At 1714 AEDT, the SPI200 futures index was lower by two points, or 0.03 per cent, at 6777 points.

CURRENCY SNAPSHOT

One Australian dollar buys:

* 77.45 US cents, from 77.38 cents on Wednesday

* 80.99 Japanese yen, from 80.93 yen

* 63.86 Euro cents, from 63.83 cents

* 55.93 British pence, from 55.99 pence

* 107.15 NZ cents, from 107.03 cents.

Austrlaian Associated PressBack to Breaking News

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