* Financials rally leads Aussie shares higher
* BHP biggest drag on the benchmark
* NZ rises on utilities stocks
By Aditya Soni
April 30 (Reuters) - Australian shares firmed to a near seven-week high on Monday, led by a sharp rise in banks, though gains were capped by losses in materials on weaker commodities prices.
The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.5 percent or 30.10 points to 5,983.70 by 0254 GMT. The benchmark added 0.7 percent on Friday.
Banks are seen experiencing a relief rally after the resignation of wealth manager AMP’s chairwoman was announced.
Her departure has shifted attention to segments such as retail financial advice that appear most at risk in the current judicial enquiry into the financial sector, said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at CMC Markets.
Banks accounted for nearly half the gains on benchmark, with the Australian financial index rising more than one percent.
Westpac Banking Corp, Australia’s second-biggest bank by market value, climbed as much as 2.3 percent, its biggest intraday percentage rise in more than nine months, while National Australia Bank Ltd firmed 1.6 percent.
AMP Ltd announced the resignations of its chairwoman and legal counsel on Monday and slashed its directors’ fees by a quarter, as it tries to contain the fallout from damaging revelations of misconduct at the judicial enquiry, known as a Royal Commission.
AMP shares traded 0.4 percent lower on Monday. The wealth manager has lost around A$2.2 billion ($1.7 billion) in market value during the Royal Commission’s two-week public hearing focusing on financial advice.
Real estate stocks also gained, with Stockland Corporation Ltd rising 2.9 percent to a near six-week high, while Goodman Group Pty Ltd climbed 1.1 percent to its highest in almost 10 years.
Stockland reaffirmed fiscal-year 2017 guidance of 5.0-6.5 per cent rise in cash flow and said it is targeting a 4 per cent growth in distribution per security.
AGL Energy Ltd, the country biggest power producer, traded 1.7 percent higher. AGL on Monday confirmed that Chinese-owned Alinta Energy made a A$250 million ($189 million) bid for AGL’s Liddell coal-fired power station.
Materials stocks fell on lower commodities prices. The most-traded September iron ore contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange dropped 1.3 percent to 460.50 Chinese yuan ($72.72) a tonne on Friday.
BHP, the world’s biggest miner dropped, 0.7 percent, while BlueScope Steel Ltd dipped 1.8 percent, its biggest intraday percentage loss in nearly four weeks.
New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index rose 0.4 percent or 35.24 points to 8,405.61.
Utilities stocks led the gainers, with Meridian Energy Ltd rising about 1.4 percent to a near four-week high and Mercury NZ Ltd gained 1.9 percent. ($1 = 1.3205 Australian dollars) ($1 = 6.3325 Chinese yuan renminbi) (Reporting by Aditya Soni in Bengaluru Editing by Eric Meijer)