ASX flat as Telstra's big dividend era ends

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Shares wobbled between gains and losses on Wednesday as the ASX failed to join in on a region-wide rebound, weighed down by a sharp fall in Telstra as it traded ex-dividend and more selling in the big banks.

The S&P/ASX 200 index ended the session flat at 5670, once again shrugging off a positive offshore lead to tread its own, more dour path. Telstra weighed the heaviest on the benchmark, falling 6.3 per cent to $3.60 as the stock traded without the right to its 15.5?? per share final dividend. Shareholders can now look forward to lower payouts, as flagged by the giant telco's management last week.

Telstra investors also grappled with the news that NBN had rejected a proposal to monetise the payments the builder of the National Broadband Network is making to the telco, although the revelation failed to spark further losses in the shares.

"In our view, this means that the proposed share buybacks that Telstra had intended to fund with this transaction are unlikely to proceed," Citi analysts said. But they said NBN's decision should not affect planned dividend payments.

"Telstra has guided to a 22?? dividend payment in FY18 including a special dividend. Our estimate is that this will be comprised of a 15?? ordinary dividend and a 7?? special. We expect that ordinary dividends will likely decline to a low point of 13c in FY19 with scope to grow from that point."

Further losses in the major banks also dragged on the sharemarket on Wednesday, as CBA's 0.5 per cent fall brought this month's losses to 10 per cent. ANZ shed 0.2 per cent and NAB 0.1 per cent, while Westpac managed to eke out a slight gain.

Investors were unimpressed with the annual earnings release from hospital operator Ramsay Healthcare, which lost 5.3 per cent over the session. Boral was the other big name reporting on the penultimate day of earnings season, and the stock dropped 2.9 per cent after its profit report.

Billabong International surged as much as 8 per cent in early trade as investors seemed to look through a bottom-line loss and concentrate on signs of an operational turnaround in the struggling surfwear retailer. But those gains swung to losses of as much as 5.3 per cent before the stock settled 0.7 per cent higher for the day.

Nine Entertainment was the day's worst performer in the ASX 200, falling 7.9 per cent after The Australian Financial Review reported that News Corp was said to be not interested in buying the television network.

Much stronger than expected economic data released late Wednesday morning boosted the Australian dollar, which threatened to break back above US80??. A 9.3 per cent surge in construction work over the June quarter, as revealed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, surprised economists, who had been expecting growth more in the order of 1 per cent.

"We suspect that the spike is entirely due to the importation of a floating LNG platform, Prelude, which set sail for WA from a South Korean shipyard on June 28," Westpac economist Andrew Hanlan said.

Stock watch

Syrah Resources

Syrah shot up to trade 9.2 per cent higher at $2.97 on Wednesday as the markets took on board news of a mining agreement between Syrah and the Mozambique Government.The industrial minerals and technology company told the market that the mining agreement was approved by the Mozambique Government on 29 August.Syrah said the agreement "provides the company with clarity around the governing laws and contractualises the mining rights and other obligations for the Balama project in Mozambique". The Balama project is described on Syrah's website as the "world's largest graphite resource". Syrah says Balama is under construction and nearing completion, with commissioning activities having commenced in May this year.

Movers

The Aussie

Traders pushed the Australian dollar higher in response to a bumper crop of economic data Wednesday morning. The currency was the standout mover of the Asian session, jumping 0.5 per cent to a four-week high of US79.95??, before settling to US79.7?? in late trade. Better than expected construction data smashed economist expectations. Also, approvals for the construction of new homes fell 1.7 per cent in July, also beating market expectations for a 5 per cent decline. Approvals for private sector houses were unchanged in July, and the "other dwellings" category, which includes apartment blocks and townhouses, was down 6.7 per cent.

Construction work

Engineering construction leaped 22 per cent - the biggest quarterly gain on record - in the three months to June, boosted possibly by Chevron's monster Gorgon LNG project in Western Australia, but also by increasing civil infrastructure projects. The boost, which lifted the quarterly value of work done to $24.7 billion from $20.2 billion in the March quarter, more than offset the tepid performances of residential and non-residential construction and pushed total construction output for the three-month period up 9.3 per cent to a total $51.7 billion in seasonally adjusted terms.

Asian stocks

Equity indices in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea rebounded from losses initially sparked when North Korea fired a missile over Japan. US President Donald Trump said the US will consider "all options" in its response. North Korea said Wednesday the missile was in protest at annual military exercises between the US and South Korea. That suggests the standoff is unlikely to intensify and, coupled with Trump's tempered remarks, helped underpin risk assets. "Markets have taken out all of the North Korea move," noted Citi trader Aaron Ng on Wednesday.

Blackmores

Shares in the vitamin maker jumped 12 per cent to $109.50 after it was upgraded to overweight at JP Morgan. The analysts said they believe the firm's earnings have adequately rebased, which should lead to a return of earnings growth in 2018. "FY17 presented a meaningful increase in 'one-offs'/investments that, although possibly seeing a level of repetition in FY18 given the way the Blackmores board invests in the business for the long term, any normalisation therein should lead to meaningful earnings growth outside of the positive trends seen in the business."

This story ASX flat as Telstra's big dividend era ends first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.