May 20, 2020 / 7:28 AM / 13 days ago

Australian shares end higher on further easing of virus curbs

* New South Wales to allow travel for pleasure

* Australian prelim retail sales see record dive in April

* Gold stocks rise on stronger bullion prices (Updates to close)

By Soumyajit Saha

May 20 (Reuters) - Australian shares reversed course to end marginally higher on Wednesday on plans to accelerate resumption of public life and further opening up of its economy, although trade tensions with China and dismal domestic retail data capped gains.

Largest state New South Wales will allow people to resume travel for pleasure from next month, while the government is talking with Australian universities about allowing the return of some international students.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said just 11 new COVID-19 cases were recorded over the past 24 hours in Australia.

“The Australian market was defensively positioned today having not gained as much as the European or U.S. stocks on the vaccine optimism earlier, thereby helping in the recovery,” said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at CMC Markets.

“Participants are quite optimistic about measures towards opening up the economy, but volatility also remains”, McCarthy added.

The S&P/ASX 200 index closed 0.24% higher at 5,573. The benchmark had fallen almost 1% during the session as China, effectively, banned Australian barley imports and as Wall Street slumped overnight on doubts about a potential coronavirus vaccine. [nL4N2D106E ]

Meanwhile, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) said its preliminary estimate of retail sales plunged a seasonally adjusted 17.9% in April, its biggest ever.

The sub-index for industrial stocks hit its highest level for the month of May.

Toll road operator Transurban Group gained 2%, while Sydney Airport Holdings advanced 1%.

Tech stocks soared to a near three-month high, with electronic payments co EML Payments Ltd jumping over 15% as it reported strong results.

Heavyweight financial stocks were slightly higher, with the “big four” banks gaining between 0.5% and 0.7%.

Gold stocks were higher alongside the underlying commodity’s prices climbing, as bleak data from major economies revived virus-led economic pain, while the initial euphoria over a potential COVID-19 vaccine fizzled away.

Brokerage Morgan Stanley said Aussie gold stocks would continue to benefit from the threat of a prolonged economic downturn in the future.

Gold explorer Northern Star Resources gained nearly 2%.

The energy sub-index snapped three sessions of gains to end 0.9% lower, with explorer Woodside Petroleum Ltd losing 0.4%.

Across the Tasman sea, New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index ended marginally lower.

Largest construction firm Fletcher Building fell nearly 3% on signalling a sharp downturn in 2021 due to the virus.

Reporting by Soumyajit Saha in Bengaluru; editing by Uttaresh.V

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