Australian shares close higher, post best Feb in 4 yrs; NZ gains

* ASX 200 gains 5 pct in Feb on financials and miners

* NZ50 gains 3.8 pct in Feb

* Rio Tinto ends higher after bumper annual earnings (Updates to close)

Feb 28 (Reuters) - Australian shares ended higher on Thursday and posted their best February performance since 2015, helped by gains in heavyweight financial and mining stocks.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.3 percent to 6,169.0 at the close of trade. The benchmark rose 0.4 percent on Wednesday and gained more than 5 percent for the month, its biggest monthly gain since July 2016.

Financials, the biggest sector in the index, rallied in February after a powerful inquiry into the sector drew to a close without recommending major structural changes to the industry. Mining stocks were stronger owing to better commodity prices and optimism towards China, Australia's largest export market.

For the day, the financial subindex closed 0.8 percent higher, with lenders Westpac Banking Corp and National Australia Bank ending about 1 percent and 1.3 percent higher, respectively.

The subindex gained about 8 percent in February, its best month since April 2013.

Elsewhere, the mining subindex ended 0.9 percent lower, with most stocks losing ground after weaker Chinese factory data, and cautious statements from the Sino-U.S. trade front.

Bucking the trend, miner Rio Tinto closed 1.1 percent higher after posting its highest annual underlying earnings since 2014.

The mining index rose 6.1 percent in the month, with its largest member, BHP Group, adding nearly 7 percent.

Meanwhile, healthcare stocks saw some defensive buying for the day after sentiment was rattled by news from China. Pharmaceutical company CSL Ltd, the fifth largest stock on the ASX 200, closed up 3 percent at a more than two-week high. The stock serves as a defensive due to its U.S. vaccine business providing a constant revenue stream, seen as relatively unaffected by global factors.

New Zealand shares ended higher as financials and utilities gained, although a drop in consumer stocks checked further gains. The benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.5 percent or 43.56 points to finish the session at 9,325.03. The New Zealand benchmark gained 3.8 percent for February. The New Zealand-listed shares of Westpac Banking rose 0.9 percent, while energy retailer Meridian Energy gained more than 1 percent.

Defying the bullish trend, milk producer Fonterra plunged after it cut its annual earnings outlook. (Reporting by Ambar Warrick in Bengaluru; Editing by Sam Holmes)

2019-02-28 08:19:53

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