Global traders have fled growth assets like copper and oil for the safety of gold, punishing Australian energy stocks while lifting fuel-dependent airlines and gold miners.
The benchmark S&P/ASX200 index was down 8.9 points, or 0.16 per cent, at 5580.6 on Wednesday, while the broader All Ordinaries lost 0.21 per cent per cent.
“There’s very little in terms of major investment themes today,” said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist with CMC Markets.
Volumes were robust, unusual for the market so close before Christmas, which Mr McCarthy took as a sign traders were being cautious and staying at their desks ahead of the US Federal Reserve meeting on interest rates, expected in the overnight hours.
As investors globally sought safety growth assets such as oil and copper dropped.
“Oil prices in particular were smashed,” said Julia Lee, equities analyst with Bell Direct.
US crude dropped to $46.24 a barrel, its lowest level since August 2017 and a fall of over 40 per cent since early October. Copper was down 3.7 per cent, hitting a three-month low.
Mining stocks Independence Group, Pilbara Minerals, Mineral Resources, Iluka Resources and Syrah Resources were all lower, along with petrol retailer Caltex.
But “on the flip side, great for transportation stocks,” Lee said of the oil sell-off.
Qantas stock was up 5.07 per cent and dual-listed Air New Zealand shares climbed 5.21 per cent, while Virgin Australia was flat.
The price of gold spiked 1.5 per cent to $US1253.30, sending Australian gold mining shares as much as 6.8 per cent higher.
Elsewhere in the resource sector BHP was flat while Rio Tinto gained 0.72 per cent.
Three of the four big banks, though, rose strongly on the day that the prudential regulator scrapped its limit on how much they can lend to property investors.
Commonwealth Bank was up 1.17 per cent, ANZ rose 1.06 per cent and NAB closed up 0.82 per cent despite copping a record first strike at its AGM in Melbourne.
Westpac closed marginally higher, at $24.33, up 0.08 per cent.
Medibank shares were up 1.06 per cent, to $2.38, even as the health insurer said it would raise its premiums just an average of 3.3 per cent from April 1 – the lowest average premium increase in 18 years.
Bega shares tumbled more than 12 per cent after the dairy manufacturer said drought and farmgate pricing pressure would hurt its bottom line in the coming year.
The Australian dollar was higher against its US counterpart as traders waited on a US Federal Reserve announcement on interest rates, buying 71.93 US cents at 1630 AEDT, up from 71.91 on Tuesday.
ON THE ASX:
* The benchmark S&P/ASX200 index was down 8.9 points, or 0.16 per cent, at 5580.6
* The All Ordinaries was down 11.8 points, or 0.21 per cent, at 5650.0
* At 1630 AEDT, the SPI200 futures index was up 17 points, or 0.3 per cent, at 5597
CURRENCY SNAPSHOT AT 1630 AEDT:
One Australian dollar buys:
* 71.93 US cents, from 71.90 US cents on Tuesday
* 80.80 Japanese yen, from 80.92
* 63.19 euro cents, from 63.39
* 56.82 British pence, from 56.97
* 104.77 NZ cents, from 104.94
The spot price of gold in Sydney at 1630 AEDT was $US1250.90 per fine ounce, from $US1248.05 on Tuesday.