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ASX surges higher as Westpac leaps

Westpac led banks and the Australian sharemarket to a fresh four-and-a-half-year high as the low expectations of the earnings season continued to deliver upside momentum for stocks.

The S&P/ASX 200 index closed 29.5 points, or 0.59 per cent, up at 5063.4 points, after Westpac went "parabolic" - a near vertical price rise in a short period of time - with a 3.6 per cent rise today, while Commonwealth Bank was the only loser.

Displaying frenzied buying in search for yield, Westpac is up 8.5 per cent for the past week, 14.3 per cent for the past month and 48.6 per cent for the past 12 months.

Asian markets were mostly firmer after the G20 meeting in Russia turned a blind-eye to Japan's attempts to weaken the yen, sending the Nikkei 2.2 per cent higher.

"The message from G20 seems to be 'mind your language', meaning that exchange rate shifts arising from appropriate domestic monetary and fiscal policies will not be criticised or challenged, but direct reference to currencies as a policy objective will be," National Australia Bank global head of currency strategy Ray Attrill said.

"We believe this means the yen is free to weaken, but Japanese officials must refrain from being seen to be goading the yen to weaker levels."

Trade in China resumed after the week-long New Year holiday with the Shanghai composite index trading little changed at the close of the ASX after soft retail sales dampened sentiment.

On Friday US stocks slipped 0.1 per cent with sentiment knocked by a leaked email from retail giant Walmart which said February sales were very poor and that the increased payroll tax was to blame.

A jump in US consumer confidence offered some support, but US industrial production also missed forecasts with a 0.1 per cent drop.

The Australian dollar fell 0.6¢ to $US1.0280 as the US dollar continued to gain traction against most major currencies as investors begin to price in the end of US Federal Reserve quantitative easing.

Placing upward pressure on global funding costs, US 10-year yields climbed over 2 per cent on the improved consumer confidence data and a bounce in the Empire State manufacturing survey.

Gold tumbled $US34 to a low $US1598 an ounce on Friday night, before recovering to $US1612 an ounce today, as demand for precious metal safe-havens waned.

"Gold's relationships have proved to be fickle, switching seamlessly between taking its lead from the dollar to risky assets," Barclays analyst Suki Cooper said. "Now, however, gold appears to be without a driver."

"The upcoming US debt ceiling vote and spending cuts still have scope to revive gold's safe haven properties, and correlations could lend support, but should gold fail to respond, the hurdles will likely mount further and risks will rise to the downside."

More to come…

The West Australian

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