Australia stocks hit 2-1/2-yr lows, NZ shares fall hard on global headwinds

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON - Australian and New Zealand shares started the week on a sour note, tracking Wall Street's tumble as deepening oil woes reinforced global growth concerns.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index was hit the hardest, down 1.7 percent or 105.23 points to 6,062.45. It touched a one-month low at 6,035.88, the 76.4 percent retracement of the November-December rise. A break below would target 5,989.03.

There were no gainers and the biggest losers were Tower , down 6.1 percent and Nuplex, down 4.7 percent. A dearth of local data meant investors remain focused on offshore events for direction.

"Equity markets and commodities continued to decline as fears for global growth weigh, with the Chinese economy at the centre of these concerns," said ASB Chief Economist Nick Tuffley.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 0.7 percent or 36.9 points to 4,855.9 by 02:04 GMT. It briefly touched its lowest in 2-1/2-year, but managed to recoup some losses after investors cheered a shake up in the nation's home renovation sector.

Shares in No.1 grocery chain Woolworths jumped 5 percent after it announced plans to sell or wind up its hardware unit 'Masters' due to ongoing losses.

At the same time, conglomerate Wesfarmers announced it was expanding with a A$705 million (S$701 million) acquisition of UK-based home improvement retailer Homebase, sending its stocks 3 percent higher.

Still, the benchmark index remained under heavy pressure, having dropped 7.6 percent this year on declining commodity prices and concerns about China's economic growth.

Energy shares took a severe beating with Santos down 8 percent to its weakest in 20 years, while Origin dropped around 6 percent. LNG and Oil Search were also down by more than 5 percent.

Mining stocks skidded anew with BHP Billiton down 3.1 percent, holding just above 10-year lows, while Rio Tinto shed 2.5 percent to stand near its weakest since 2009.

Financial stocks also fell with Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac Banking Corp, ANZ Banking Group and National Australia Bank off by more than 1 percent.

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