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Australian shares edge higher, but suffer first weekly loss in three

FILE PHOTO: Pedestrians are reflected in a window in front of a board displaying stock prices at the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) in Sydney, Australia, February 9, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray

(Reuters) - Australian shares ended higher on Friday, but a sell-off in banks this week dragged the benchmark to its first weekly loss in three.

Financials <.AXFJ>, supported by the 'Big Four' banks, are the largest component of the S&P/ASX 200 index <.AXJO> and have fallen every day this week.

Though the benchmark added nearly 6 points, or 0.1%, to close at 6,669.1 on Friday, it is set to drop 1% over the week.

The sector suffered sharper losses after Australia and New Zealand Banking Group <ANZ.AX>, the country's fourth-largest, on Thursday missed estimates and reported a near 3% drop in its second-half cash profit amid record low interest rates and tough competition for home loans.

The other of the so-called 'Big Four' are set to report their results over the next two weeks. National Australia Bank <NAB.AX> and Westpac Banking Corp <WBC.AX> will report next week, and the country's top lender Commonwealth Bank of Australia <CBA.AX>, the week after.

On Friday, ANZ fell the most, down 2.1%, while the other three lost between 0.5% and 1.2%.

Macquarie Group <MQG.AX> closed 0.3% higher after posting a record first-half profit, but forecast a weaker annual result.

Elsewhere, strength in gold stocks and energy firms supported minor gains on the benchmark.

Woodside Petroleum <WPL.AX>, the country's top oil and gas producer, rose 0.8%, while Beach Energy <BPT.AX> climbed 2.6% as oil prices rose.

Worries over global economic growth, and whether a U.S.-China trade deal will ever get signed supported safe-haven buying of gold. The Australian gold sector <.AXGD> was the biggest gainer.

Later on, an unexpected bounce in factory activity in China, which showed it expand at its fastest pace in more than two years, helped soothe concerns.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index <.NZ50> fell 0.2% to 10,761.69.

ANZ's local unit <ANZ.NZ> was among the worst percentage losers, falling 1.7%.

(Reporting by Nikhil Kurian Nainan in Bengaluru; editing by Uttaresh.V)

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