MARKET CLOSE: NZ shares follow Asian markets lower after 'pretty good' earnings season; Sky falls

March 1 (BusinessDesk) - New Zealand shares joined a regionwide sell-off with Asian equity markets following Wall Street lower as global investors second-guess the outlook for US interest rates, and as local analysts absorb a "pretty good" earnings season. Sky Network Television fell for a second day.

The S&P/NZX 50 index fell 31.11 points, or 0.4 percent, to 8,342.71. Within the index, 28 stocks declined, 15 gained, and seven were unchanged. Turnover was $113.3 million.

Stocks across Asia declined, with Australia's S&P/ASX 200 index down 0.8 percent in afternoon trading and Japan's Topix down 1.3 percent, following Wall Street lower as investors prepare for Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell's second congressional testimony, where they're seeking clues on how quickly US interest rates will rise, which reduces the appeal of equities.

That comes as the local company earnings season winds down with most results falling in line with expectations, which supports the current price-to-earnings ratio at 18.5. The two biggest surprises in the reporting period were a2 Milk Co, which more than doubled first-half profit and entered into a supply deal, while Fletcher Building unveiled wider construction losses in its Buildings + Interiors unit. A2 shares fell 1.1 percent to $13.09 and Fletcher dropped 1.2 percent to $6.43.

"Earnings season looked to be pretty good, skewed by two significant names - one on the plus side and one of the downside," said James Lindsay, a portfolio manager at Nikko Asset Management, which this week was named Morningstar's New Zealand fund manager of the year. "With the end of reporting seasons, there wasn't a lot to drive prices. A lot of the market continues to wait to see what Fletcher Building announces with regard to the US private placement market debt."

Fletcher announced it was granted a waiver by the US private placement noteholders after trading had closed.

Sky led the market lower, falling 2.8 percent to $2.46, adding to yesterday's 9.6 percent decline when the pay-TV operator slashed its dividend and lowered the price of its entry-level service. New Zealand Rugby today unveiled a return to profit in 2017, and chief executive Steve Tew said he's keen for two or three bidders in negotiations for the 2021 broadcasting rights, which are currently held by Sky.

"Sky's made their first attempt, and I don't think it's the end of it for them, at trying to reduce the subscription losses and going into those negotiations for when the rights run out, it's probably better that they're in a good solid position as far as the number of customers," Lindsay said. "The dividend cut is a very well thought out strategy as far as getting the corporate entity right-sized as far as debt going into those negotiations."

Kathmandu Holdings fell 2.2 percent to $2.20 and SkyCity Entertainment Group declined 2.1 percent to $3.82. Spark New Zealand slipped 0.3 percent to $3.345 and Auckland International Airport was down 0.8 percent to $6.40.

Power companies dropped, with Genesis Energy falling 1.1 percent to $2.335, Meridian Energy down 0.5 percent to $2.785, and Contact Energy slipping 0.4 percent to $5.26.

NZX was the best performer on the day, rising 1.9 percent to $1.07. Metro Performance Glass gained 1.2 percent to 84 cents and Tourism Holdings advanced 1 percent to $6.

Outside the benchmark index, Tower rose 3.7 percent to 70.5 cents after the insurer's board said it will resume dividend payments in the 2018 financial year, having settled a dispute with reinsurer Peak Re yesterday. The company told shareholders at today's annual meeting in Auckland it had boosted gross written premium 14 percent in the first four months of the year.

New Zealand King Salmon fell 2.5 percent to $1.94 after the fish farmer warned second half earnings would be weighed on by high mortality rates after an exceptionally hot summer, having posted an 81 percent gain in first half profit.

AWF Madison Group sank 11 percent to $2.02 after the contract labour firm warned profit would fall on softness in labour hiring and delays in mobilising its migrant workforce to meet pent-up demand in the Auckland construction sector.

Methven rose 1.9 percent to $1.07 after the tapware maker reported flat first-half earnings as it deals with a slowdown in Canterbury activity, while affirming annual guidance for earnings to rise.

GeoOp climbed 8.7 percent to 13.7 cents after the employment app developer lifted first-half revenue, while widening its loss as costs mounted in its unsuccessful bid to migrate to the Australian Securities Exchange.

SLI Systems gained 7.7 percent to 28 cents after the e-commerce software developer said its long-standing substantial shareholder Pioneer Capital sold its holding. Pioneer's Matthew Houtman also resigned from SLI's board.

Promisia Integrative Group dropped 20 percent to 0.8 cents after the supplement maker reported a first-half loss of $876,000, describing the result as "a major disappointment".

T&G Global fell 1.5 percent to $3.22 after the fruit marketing company reported a 36 percent in annual profit to $19.4 million, even as revenue cross $1 billion for the first time in its 120-year history.

Wellington Drive Technologies dropped 7.1 percent to 15.8 after the energy efficient motor maker narrowed its annual loss and projected first-half 2018 earnings to rise by 10 percent.