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Shares faded to a narrow loss at the end of a see-saw session as gains in miners, banks and Telstra were outweighed by weakness in tech and consumer stocks.

The S&P/ASX 200 finished seven points or 0.1 per cent lower after rising as much as 19 points in the first hour.

What moved the market

The headline figures may be lacklustre, but there was plenty of movement under the hood. The busiest day of the half-year earnings season so far produced winners in Telstra, Newcrest and AGL, as well as a high-profile splat in AMP. Tech star Nearmap withered under a shortseller attack. Earnings updates from Magellan and Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield prompted sell-offs.

“Outside of the gold sector and the telcos, it was a pretty dour affair,” ThinkMarkets analyst Carl Capolingua said. “It’s interesting because risk appetite globally has been on the rise over the last few sessions… But the local bourse hasn’t really responded. We’re just treading water.”

“Investors clearly think they’ve got plenty of time to get set, and there’s a bit of supply around here after the last rally,” he added. “Put it together and that means stagnation. We’re waiting for the next catalyst to swing sentiment. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what that’s going to be.”  

The market struggled for direction following soft leads from the US. The S&P 500 dipped 0.03 per cent to a second straight minor loss as investors awaited fresh impetus.

Trading volumes across the wider region were depressed by the start of Lunar New Year holidays in Asia. Chinese markets will remain closed until next Thursday.

Winners’ circle

Pre-Lunar New Year holiday bumps in iron ore and copper ensured the domestic mining sector was supported. Rio Tinto rose 1.1 per cent and BHP 0.9 per cent. Fortescue Metals faded to a loss of 0.25 per cent.

Miner Newcrest was the pick of the heavyweights, jumping 4.1 per cent as surging commodity prices helped the miner more than double statutory half-year profit. Full-year gold production was expected to be towards the upper end of previous guidance. The dividend was unchanged at 15 cents per share.

Telstra climbed 2.5 per cent to a six-month peak after CEO Andrew Penn declared the telecom giant was at a turning point after years of disappointing returns. Penn said earnings would start to grow again after a 14.7 per cent decline last half to $4.1 billion. The board declared a fully-franked interim dividend of eight cents, with another eight cents at the end of the financial year.

“After a decade of disruption following the creation of the nbn, and with its rollout now declared complete, we can clearly see the path to underlying growth ahead of us,” he said.

AGL Energy edged up 1.3 per cent after reporting a $2.287 billion statutory half-year loss. Shares fell to their lowest level in almost 13 years this week after the company pre-empted the grim result with a warning about charges and weak wholesale electricity and gas prices.

A possible breakthrough in treating chronic back pain lifted Mesoblast 1.6 per cent. The inflammatory disease specialist said Phase 3 trials showed a single injection of its experimental treatment could provide relief to patients with degenerative disc disease for at least two years.

Integrated services provider Downer EDI rallied 1.3 per cent on news it will resume paying dividends despite a 17.3 per cent slump in statutory net profit.

A day after increasing its dividend, Commonwealth Bank rose 1.1 per cent. NAB and Westpac edged up 0.3 per cent. ANZ gained 0.2 per cent. Macquarie Group eased 0.8 per cent, Property giant Goodman Group added 0.7 per cent and CSL 0.2 per cent.

Z1P Co was the session’s most widely traded stock, hitting a new record at $11.65 before trimming its advance to 0.75 per cent at $10.78.

Doghouse

Troubled wealth manager AMP dived 11 per cent to $1.37 after would-be suitor Ares Management Corporation walked away. The US investment manager told AMP it would not proceed with a non-binding offer of $1.85 per share. The Australian firm reported an 8 per cent decline in assets under management in the first half as clients drew down on their super.

Covid-affected traffic volumes cast a cloud over Transurban‘s half-year result. Average daily traffic on the operator’s toll roads slumped 17.8 per cent. The company declared a statutory loss of $448 million and a dividend of 15 cents. The share price declined 0.7 per cent.

Shopping centre operator Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield sank 3.9 per cent after warning it does not expect to pay a dividend until 2023. Investment manager Magellan dropped 4.4 per cent despite a 9 per cent increase in funds under management, 3 per cent rise in net profit and a 5 per cent hike in the dividend to 97.1 cents.

Market operator ASX dipped 1.8 per cent after record-low interest rates helped drag net profit down 3.4 per cent to $241.8 million.

Beyond the earnings space, the biggest weights at the top end of the market were Afterpay -2.3 per cent, Brambles -1.7 per cent and Coles -1.1 per cent. Aristocrat Leisure and Woolworths shed 0.9 per cent. Wesfarmers and Woodside dipped 0.2 per cent.

Aerial mapping firm Nearmap dived 7.3 per cent before entering a trading halt following an attack by short-seller J Capital. The US company accused Nearmap of failing to crack the US market but “forgetting” to tell investors. Nearmap halted trade to respond to the allegations.  

Other markets

US futures rebounded as the Asian session wore on. S&P 500 futures were lately up five points or 0.12 per cent after earlier falling more than 0.2 per cent.

Oil‘s longest winning run in 13 months came under pressure. Brent crude dropped 30 cents or 0.5 per cent to $US61.17 a barrel. The global benchmark had advanced for nine straight sessions coming into today.

Gold faded $6.10 or 0.3 per cent to $US1,836.60 an ounce.

The dollar bounced 0.15 per cent to 77.35 US cents.

Hot today and not today

Hot today: Shares in The Market Herald (ASX:TMH), publisher of this website, briefly doubled in value after the company updated investors on the launch of its streaming network. The company said the Price Sensitive show was fast becoming one of the most streamed Australian business bulletins, sometimes reaching 500,000 streams. The platform sold $1.1 million in annualised advertising and received $290,000 during the pilot period. The share price ran from 42 cents to 84 cents and finished 85.7 per cent ahead at 78 cents.

Not today: Telstra reseller Vita Group (ASX:VTG) tumbled after Telstra announced it will take control of its retail store network. A licensing agreement under which Vita operates 104 of Telstra’s 337 stores will terminate in June 2025. Vita CEO Maxine Horne said the company had growth opportunities in the skin health and wellness space. “The remaining period of the Telstra licence arrangement will provide cashflow as we continue to grow the Artisan brand,” she said. The share price slumped 27.6 per cent.

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