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The share market gyrated within a 40-point range before ending unchanged as investors mulled a wave of heavyweight profit reports and a drop in the unemployment rate.

The S&P/ASX 200 churned between losses and gains until the session fizzled out with a final tally of less than a point or 0.01 per cent.

Well-received trading updates from CSL, ANZ, Fortescue Metals and Wesfarmers helped keep the market steady. Misses from Woodside Petroleum, Origin Energy, United Malt and Perpetual kept the final outcome in the balance.

What moved the market

The headline number disguises how much went on this session. Results from CSL and Sonic drove the healthcare sector to its highest level of the year. Index heavyweights Coles, Goodman, Newcrest and Transurban fell to multi-month lows. The speculative end of the market skidded 1.3 per cent to a third straight loss.

News of an unexpectedly large drop in joblessness gave the index a temporary boost. The unemployment rate fell to 6.4 per cent last month from 6.6 per cent in December as the economy added a seasonally-adjusted 29,000 positions.

“January 2021 was the fourth consecutive monthly rise in employment, as employment in Victoria continued to recover,” Bjorn Jarvis, head of labour statistics at the ABS, said. “Nationally, employment was only 59,000 people lower than March 2020, having fallen by 872,000 people early in the pandemic.”

Buyer appetite was not helped by a slump in US futures near the end of the session. S&P 500 futures dived 10 points or 0.25 per cent as Asian markets gave up all or most of their gains. By the Australian close, the Asia Dow was off 0.53 per cent.

Overnight, the S&P 500 extended a run of lacklustre sessions with a slender loss of 0.03 per cent. The Dow gained 0.29 per cent. The Nasdaq fell 0.58 per cent.

Winners’ circle

ANZ soared 2.8 per cent to its highest level in almost a year as unaudited cash profits bounced 54 per cent to $1.81 billion last quarter. CEO Shayne Elliott said the bank had seen market share gains in Australian home loans and record home loan volumes in New Zealand. Westpac climbed 3.1 per cent. NAB faded 0.9 per cent and  CBA 1.4 per cent.

A 44 per cent surge in reported half-year net profit to $1.8 billion drove CSL shares up 2.8 per cent. The biotech raised its interim dividend by 9 per cent to US$1.04 a share.

Sonic Healthcare gained 1.2 per cent as the pathology business roared back from its pandemic slump. Net profit surged 166 per cent to $678 million.  

Surging iron ore prices underpinned a 66 per cent increase in first-half net profit at Fortescue Metals. The share price jumped 1.9 per cent as investors cheered a record dividend of $1.47 per share.

Retail and industrial conglomerate Wesfarmers swung to a gain of 0.6 per cent as investors weighed a 25.5 per cent surge in net profit to $1.4 billion and a decision to press ahead with a lithium mine in WA. The result was driven by strong sales across the firm’s retail businesses, which include Bunnings, Kmart and Officeworks.

Rio Tinto finished flat after hitting a record in early trade. The ore miner yesterday reported a 13 per cent increase in underlying half-year earnings and a 21 per cent increase in earnings per share.   

Record sales and production helped Santos inch up 0.3 per cent despite the impact of weak oil and LNG prices. The energy giant reported a full-year net loss of $357 million.

Casino stocks shrugged off confirmation of the profit hit from pandemic lockdowns and bans on international flights. Crown Resorts climbed 0.4 per cent despite a half-year loss of $17.9 million. Star Entertainment added 0.3 per cent following a 33.1 per cent slump in half-year statutory net profit to $51.2 million.

Among other companies reporting, IPH soared 9.8 per cent, Iress 4.6 per cent, Orora 5.5 per cent and Oz Minerals 1 per cent.  

Beyond from the earnings deluge, Afterpay bounced 1.5 per cent and Aristocrat Leisure added 0.3 per cent. Treasury Wine Estates soared 17.5 per cent following yesterday’s profit update. Tabcorp gained 5.7 per cent and Domino’s Pizza 5.6 per cent.

Doghouse

A US$4 billion full-year net loss sent Woodside Petroleum down 2.4 per cent. The headline loss was partly offset by record production. The result was clouded by impairments. Underlying profit was US$447 million.

A dividend increase helped cushion South32 from a dive in half-year profit. The miner lifted its interim dividend to 1.4 cents from 1.1 cents despite a 46 per cent decline in after-tax profit to $53 million. The share price eased 0.4 per cent.

Diversified industrial and media operator Seven Group sank 1 per cent after reporting a 3 per cent drop in underlying first-half net profit to $247 million. The company increased its final dividend by 10 per cent to 23 cents per share.

Weak commodity prices clouded Origin Energy‘s half-year result. Statutory profit shrank to $13 million from $599 million over the first half of FY20. The company cut its dividend from 15 cents last time to 12.4 cents per share. The share price retreated 2.2 per cent.

Other companies reporting: NRW Holdings dived 17.1 per cent, Perpetual 6.2 per cent and United Malt 6.6 per cent.

Coles, which reported earlier this week, slumped 5.6 per cent to its weakest level since last June. Goodman Group eased 2.4 per cent to a level last seen in August. Going ex-dividend sent Newcrest down 1.6 per cent to a 10-month nadir. Transurban also revisited April levels, declining 1.7 per cent.

Other markets

The souring mood in Asia saw Chinese shares trim a strong initial advance of almost 2 per cent to 0.39 per cent as trade resumed after the week-long Lunar New Year holiday. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng faded 1.16 per cent and Japan’s Nikkei 0.24 per cent.

The rally in oil showed no sign of flagging, boosted by extreme cold and strong demand in the US. Brent crude climbed 77 cents or 1.2 per cent to $US65.11 a barrel. Gold rebounded $9 or 0.5 per cent to $US1,781.80 an ounce.

The dollar dipped 0.03 per cent to 77.55 US cents.

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