March 15, 2017 / 1:40 AM / in 9 months

Australia shares slip, led by healthcare, financials; NZ edges down

March 15 (Reuters) - Australian shares declined on Wednesday, dragged down by financial and health-care stocks, with CSL Ltd and Cochlear Ltd slumping after starting to trade ex-dividend.

The S&P/ASX 200 index, which touched a near three-week high on Tuesday, fell 0.4 percent, or 21.04 points to 5,738.10 by 0051 GMT.

Investors are awaiting conclusion of the Federal Reserve’s two-day meeting, with traders pricing in a 90 percent chance it will raise U.S. interest rates a quarter of a point.

The central bank’s statement is due at 1800 GMT Wednesday followed by Chair Janet Yellen’s press conference.

“We are just following the pattern of most global markets,” said Damien Hennessy, co-founder of Heuristic Investment Systems.

There is also a bit of defensiveness before the Fed comments on future tightening, Hennessy said.

Overnight, U.S. markets finished lower in thin trading, as oil prices dropped to their lowest since November.

Australian healthcare stocks were among the biggest losers, with the ASX 200 Healthcare index slipping as much as 1.2 percent.

CSL Ltd and Cochlear Ltd shed as much as 1.3 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively after their shares started trading ex-dividend.

The financials index , which fell the past two days, declined 0.6 percent.

All of the “Big Four” banks dropped, between 0.3 percent and 1.2 percent.

Some of the market’s declines were offset by gains in the material index after Chinese steel and iron ore futures kept rallying on a spike in Chinese property sales in 2017’s first two months.

The metals and mining index rose 0.6 percent, with Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group climbing 1.6 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively.

BHP Billiton gained 1.1 percent. The Escondida copper mine it controls in Chile said it will look to restart operations after striking employees rejected an invitation to return to negotiations.

New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index fell 0.5 percent, dragged by huge losses in utilities and material stocks.

The country posted its smallest current account deficit in more than two years, according to data released on Wednesday.

However, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, which meets next week to decide the official cash rate, is unlikely to waver on its determination to keep rates at 1.75 percent, as it focuses on increasing inflation.

Electric utilities company Meridian Energy fell 0.7 percent and building material supplier Fletcher Building declined 1.4 percent. (Reporting by Krishna V Kurup in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Anusha Ravindranath; Editing by Richard Borsuk)

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