* ASX benchmark loses up to 2.6%, hits nearly 7-week low
* “Big Four” lenders decline between 1.9% and 2.5%
* Tech stocks down for 6th session, shed nearly 5%
* NZ benchmark slips up to 3.2%, most since Oct 2018
By Sameer Manekar
Feb 25 (Reuters) - Australian shares fell the most in more than six months on Tuesday as fears mounted the new coronavirus outbreak was rapidly developing into a pandemic that will derail global economic growth.
The S&P/ASX 200 index declined as much as 2.6% to its lowest since Jan. 8 and was down 2.3% at 6,816.90 by 2320 GMT, with banking and energy stocks leading the decline.
Selloff was broad-based, with less than 10% stocks in the index trading in the positive territory.
The new flu-like virus has now killed 2,663 people in mainland China and spread to 29 other countries, with a death toll outside of China of about two dozen.
Overnight, all the three major U.S. stock indexes lost between 3.3% and 3.7%, with the energy and technology sectors leading the fall.
Given the big risks, predominantly coronavirus and China shutdown, which is at best a month away, or worse two months, this fall seems like to be just a scratching of the surface, said Mathan Somasundaram, a market portfolio strategist at Blue Ocean Equities.
“If things get messier, this might extend to a bigger fall,” Somasundaram added, advising a defensive position.
Leading the losses in the benchmark stock index, the heavyweight financial sector fell up to 2.6%.
All the “Big Four” lenders slid for a second straight session, with Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Westpac Banking Corp shedding as much as 2.2% and 2.6%, respectively.
The energy sub-index hit its lowest since August-end, as oil prices slumped nearly 4% overnight.
Oil Search lost nearly 5% after the company flagged higher spending in 2020 and reported a drop in annual profit.
Heavyweights Woodside Petroleum and Santos Ltd fell 3.3% and 4.2%, respectively.
The mining sector hit its lowest in more than two months, and was on track for a third consecutive session of fall.
Blue-chip miners BHP Group and Rio Tinto lost 2.5% and 2.7%, respectively.
Tracking Wall Street peers, local tech companies marked their sixth straight session of losses, losing up to 4.8% in their biggest intraday fall since mid-August.
Software-as-a-service firm Xero Ltd shed 4.8%, while buy-now-pay-later firm Afterpay Ltd skidded 6.7%.
In New Zealand, the benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index declined up to 3.2% in its worst session since October 2018 and was last down 2.7% at 11,537.94.
NZ-listed shares of Westpac Banking Corp and electricity generator Meridian Energy were down 2.5% and 3.6%, respectively. (Reporting by Sameer Manekar in Bengaluru; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu)