January 23, 2020 / 6:41 AM / a month ago

Australia shares end lower as China virus scare grips markets

* ASX benchmark posts worst session so far in 2020

* Energy stocks fall as crude prices drop amid virus outbreak

* Industrial majors CIMIC, Downer fall on weak outlook (Updates to close)

Jan 23 (Reuters) - Shares in Australia ended lower on Thursday as investors turned more anxious about the spread of flu-like coronavirus in China, the country’s biggest trading partner, just as millions prepared to travel for the Lunar New Year holidays.

The S&P/ASX 200 index slipped 0.6% to end at 7,088, marking its worst session so far this year. The benchmark gained about a percent in the previous session and has scaled record highs in multiple sessions in 2019.

The virus has killed 17 people through respiratory illness, stoking worries about economic growth in China and a dent in the travel sector in the Asia Pacific.

The outbreak has evoked memories of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003, another coronavirus which broke out in China and killed nearly 800 people in a global pandemic.

On the Australian Stock Exchange, all the major sector-based indexes declined with energy stocks slipping about 1.7%.

Oil prices fell to their lowest in seven weeks, sliding more than 1% on demand concerns around China virus.

Oil & gas firms Beach Energy and Worley Ltd shed 6% and 2.4%, respectively.

The heavyweight Financials and the Metals & Mining sub-indexes lost 0.3% and 0.9%, respectively.

Shares of Westpac Banking Corp, the country’s No. 2 lender, closed lower after the company named industry veteran John McFarlane as chairman, entrusting him to help steer it through its troubled times in the wake of a money laundering scandal.

Top lender Commonwealth Bank of Australia gained slightly despite a class-action lawsuit filed against the lender’s pension arm for allegedly not acting in customers’ interest for insurance policies.

Sydney-based CIMIC Group was the top percentage loser in the benchmark, dropping about 20%, after the engineering services provider said it plans to exit the Middle East with the sale of its stake in BIC Contracting, pushing its shares to their lowest in more than three years.

Sentiment was further hit after Downer EDI revised its annual profit outlook to A$300 million from A$365 million owing to underperforming projects, sending shares of the contractor down 18%.

Elsewhere, New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index scaled a fresh peak of 11,910.73 before closing about 0.1% higher at a record closing high of 11,901.11.

Movie software developer Vista Group International Ltd and travel accessories retailer Kathmandu Holdings Ltd tacked on about 2% each to be the top percentage gainers in the benchmark.

Reporting by Aby Jose Koilparambil in Bengaluru, Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips

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