Feb 18 (Reuters) - Australian shares closed down on Friday
in their worst day in three weeks, weighed by financial stocks
as investors closely watched rising tensions between the West
and Russia over Ukraine.
The S&P/ASX 200 index ended 1% lower at 7,221.70,
its worst session since Jan. 27. Investors largely shrugged off
news of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accepting an
invitation to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
late next week provided Russia does not invade Ukraine.
The benchmark was marginally up for the week.
Shelling in Ukraine on Thursday renewed Western fears of an
imminent Russian invasion as U.S. President Joe Biden said
Moscow is preparing a pretext to justify a possible attack.
"It wouldn't be surprising to have markets remain volatile
in this type of manner for the time being until we get more
clarity out of Ukraine and Russia ... and any updates on
interest rate hikes as well," said Steven Daghlian, market
analyst at CommSec.
Financials shed 0.9%, with three of the country's
four largest lenders losing between 0.3% and 1.1%.
QBE Insurance plunged 8.7% after full-year profit
missed analysts' estimates, while Magellan Financial
soared 18.5% on strong interim earnings.
Technology stocks fell 1.9%, their lowest in three
weeks, tracking an overnight slide in their U.S. counterparts.
ASX-listed shares of Block Inc, Computershare
and Xero dropped between 1.8% and 3.7%.
Meanwhile, gold stocks gained 1.9% in their best
week since May 8, 2020 as the heightened tensions in Ukraine
boosted the bullion's safe-haven appeal.
Sector leaders Northern Star Resources and Newcrest
Mining rose 1.5% and 2.1%, respectively.
In other news, Australia's biggest cities including Sydney
and Melbourne eased more COVID-19 curbs amid a steady fall in
New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index was down
0.9% to 12,141.89.
Reserve Bank of New Zealand's February monetary policy
statement is due next week, with Citibank analysts expecting the
central bank to raise the official cash rate by a further 25
(Reporting by Upasana Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj