ASX ends flat but Qantas flies high

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A listless Thursday saw shares finish flat, with investors holding on to the big supermarket players despite weak retail sales figures.

Investors appeared to be paying closer attention to individual companies rather than the broader market trend.

Technology stocks were the best performing sector, followed closely by materials, while real estate stocks were the biggest drag on the market.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index finished 0.3 per cent lower while the All Ordinaries Index managed to close 0.01 per cent higher.

"It's surprising that Wesfarmers and Woolworths haven't been sold off today," says Karen Jorritsma, director of equity sales at Citi.

"But there's global economic data still reinforcing that positive growth trend and that's given the Australian market a strong lead from overseas."

Wesfarmers, owner of Coles, finished the day 0.3 per cent higher at $41.03 while Woolworths closed up 0.5 per cent to $24.67.

QBE Insurance, which had a shocking start to the week, has managed to claw some losses back and closed 1.7 per cent higher.

"QBE has fallen quite a lot and investors might be seeing some value now, but whether or not they can fund their dividend is what's keeping them truly at bay," Ms Jorritsima said.

There was broad based buying in resource stocks which offset falls in the banks.

Qantas shares enjoyed a 3.2 per cent jump after analysts at Goldman Sachs raised their rating on the airline to a buy, citing an expected increase in domestic volumes next year.

Goldman Sachs also raised Virgin Australia's rating to neutral and the stock traded high for most of the afternoon before finishing flat at 18??.

In other equities news, Galaxy Resources - the market's lithium darling - bumped up a further 3.1 per cent following this week's news the miner is in informal discussions with Panasonic and other battery suppliers. Panasonic supplies batteries to Tesla.

Software company Xero hit a 52-week high after investors cheered the company's announcement that it now had more than a quarter of a million subscribers in the United Kingdom. The stock was up 4.1 per cent to $1.15 at market close on Thursday.

- With wires

Stockwatch

Qantas hit a record high on Thursday after US investment bank Goldman Sachs upgraded its rating on the airline to buy from neutral. Qantas shares gained 3.2 per cent on Thursday to $6.12 after the broker also reset the airline's target price at $6.86 - more than 15 per cent higher than its most recent close. Shares in Qantas have soared more than 80 per cent in 2017 as the company's financial performance continues to improve under the restructuring strategy of chief executive Alan Joyce. Qantas made an underlying profit of $1.5 billion in the 2015-16 financial year - the highest in its 97-year history - and followed that with an underlying profit of $1.4 billion in 2016-17. The airline has made about 4800 job cuts since 2014, made changes to its fleet, and added new, higher-margin destinations.

Aussie

The Australian dollar fell after the release of the retail sales data this morning, moving from around US78.60?? before the data to US78.32??. The weaker-than-expected data, which show retail sales dropped 0.6 per cent in August rather than the 0.3 per cent rise economists had been expecting, prompted a slew of economist commentary on the expected path of interest rates in Australia. "While RBA officials have been accentuating the positive in the activity data and downplaying the significance of low inflation, this state of affairs is only sustainable if growth holds up, and eventually, rises," JP Morgan economist Ben Jarman commented. "The data underscore the risks to the RBA's central scenario and the likelihood that rate cuts are more likely than hikes in the foreseeable future."

Zinc

Zinc prices hovered at their highest level in more than 10 years as tight supplies created by mine closures and healthy demand from China boosted the market. Benchmark zinc on the London Metal Exchange ended up 1.2 per cent higher at $US3302 a tonne on Wednesday. The metal, used to rust-proof steel, touched $US3308.75, its highest since August 2007. "There is tightness ... mine closures from a few years ago are feeding through. But mine supply has picked up this year, which suggests tightness will start to fade as we move into next year," Capital Economics analyst Caroline Bain said. "The demand outlook looks subdued, particularly if Chinese authorities close steel capacity ... This would mean zinc demand slows in the fourth quarter and early next year."

Oil

West Texas Intermediate crude futures fell to trade at $US49.94, after falling below $US50 a barrel on Wednesday. That move came after the US Energy Information Administration reported US crude oil exports jumped to 1.98 million barrels per day last week, surpassing the 1.5 million bpd record set the previous week. The increase has been triggered by the wide discount in US WTI prices against international Brent crude prices, which makes US oil exports attractive. Ole Hansen, head of commodity strategy at Denmark's Saxo Bank said it was "still too early" for oil markets to expect crude prices to see a sustained period above $US60 per barrel.

NZ budget

New Zealand's budget surplus was larger than expected in the year through June, the Treasury Department said. The operating surplus was NZ$4.07 billion ($2.9 billion) in the year ended June 30, final government figures published Thursday in Wellington showed. That was up from NZ$1.83 billion last year and the Treasury's NZ$3.71 billion projection published in an August 23 pre-election update. "This better result should be seen as a one-off," Finance Minister Steven Joyce said in a statement. The increase should be "interpreted with caution, and not seen as automatically flowing through into higher surpluses than forecast in the years ahead," he said. Both the ruling National Party and main opposition Labour Party pledged more spending on families and core services in the lead-up to the September 23 general election, which left neither side able to form a government.

This story ASX ends flat but Qantas flies high first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.