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Record night on Wall Street to boost ASX

A plunging oil price and soft US index futures proved no barrier as the Australian share market battled towards its fourth gain in five sessions.

The ASX 200 advanced 119 points or almost 2.5 per cent to 4961 by the halfway mark, recouping almost half of Friday's 271-point tumble.

The local market demonstrated a rare independent streak, climbing as US futures signalled alarm after President Donald Trump abandoned an ambitious Easter Sunday deadline for lifting social distancing rules. S&P 500 index futures slid 31 points or 1.2 per cent after the president extended social distancing guidelines until April 30. The change came as the death toll in the US from the Covid-19 pandemic reached 2,191 and the government's top infectious disease expert warned the final toll could run as high as 200,000.

The prospect of an extended lockdown pulled crude oil lower. Brent crude tanked $1.43 or 5.7 per cent to $US23.50 a barrel. West Texas Intermediate sank $1.03 or 5 per cent to US$20.43.

Australian stocks pre-empted a weak Friday night on Wall Street, shedding 5.3 per cent and trimming the ASX 200's tally for last week to 0.5 per cent. By comparison, the S&P 500 put on 10.3 per cent in five days despite Friday's 3.37 per cent decline. The performance gap may explain this morning's ASX rally.

Health and financial stocks spearheaded today's advance, as resource stocks sold off. Personal protection specialist Ansell was the index's star performer, jumping 16.9 per cent after reiterating earnings guidance and reporting a surge in demand for its hand and body protection products. A strong morning for the broader health sector saw Mayne Pharmaceutical climb 13.5 per cent, Cochlear 7.6 per cent and Estia Health 6.6 per cent.

A delay in tougher capital requirements helped the big four banks make headway, led by a 4.9 per cent rise in CBA. ANZ gained 2.8 per cent, NAB 2.4 per cent and Westpac 4 per cent. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) announced this morning it would defer by one year the introduction of international reforms dubbed "Basel III".

The defensive utilities sector put on 2.5 per cent as AGL Energy added 3.9 per cent and APA Group 2 per cent. Energy stocks were mixed despite the renewed selling in crude. While Santos dived 4.1 per cent, Woodside rose 5.5 per cent, Beach Energy 3.8 per cent and Oil Search 3.7 per cent.

Resource stocks and industrials were the biggest drags. BHP slumped 1 per cent, Newcrest 2.8 per cent, Auckland Airport 5.7 per cent and Sydney Airport 2.2 per cent.

Asian markets recorded solid falls. China's Shanghai Composite fell 1.4 per cent, Hong Kong's Hang Seng 2.1 per cent and Japan's Nikkei 3.6 per cent.

Gold bounced $7.60 or 0.5 per cent to $US1,632.60 an ounce, recouping roughly half of Friday's loss.

The dollar retreated 0.4 per cent to 61.42 US cents.

What's hot today and what's not:

Hot today: Shares in Cellmid (ASX:CDY) briefly quadrupled in value after the junior biotech announced it had signed a deal to import a rapid diagnostic test for the Covid-19 virus. The share price rocketed from 9.9 cents to a peak of 49 cents before easing to 27.5 cents, a gain of 177.8 per cent. The company will import CE Marked, TGA-approved testing kits from China suitable for use by medical professionals in hospitals, nursing homes and schools. The test is already in use in the UK and several other European countries.  

Not today: Troubled engineering and construction group Decmil (ASX:DCG) lost four-fifths of its market capitalisation this morning after the company released delayed interim earnings. A fallout with the New Zealand Department of Corrections contributed to a $75 million half-year loss as the company set aside $49 million in provisions. While the company boasted an otherwise "strong first half", investors voted with their feet, sending the share price down 81.5 per cent to an all-time low.


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