Midday: Aus shares edge higher

Market Reports

Strong offshore leads including a near record high for the S&P 500 overnight have lead the Australian share market 0.14 per cent higher in morning trade, though softness in the materials sector has kept a lid on gains.
 
The S&P/ASX 200 index is 6 points up at 5,446. On the futures market the SPI is 8 points higher. 
 
Economic news

The ABS has released December quarter balance of payments figures. Seasonally adjusted, the balance on goods and services was a surplus of $247 million in the December quarter 2013, a turnaround of $2,919 million on the revised September quarter 2013 deficit of $2,672 million. 
 
Company news 
 
Qantas Airways Limited (ASX:QAN) has refused to respond to media comments circulating this morning that the airline plans to retrench up to five thousand staff as well as sell key maintenance infrastructure. 
 
The news pre-empted an announcement by federal Transport Minister Warren Truss that the government will move swiftly to amend the Qantas Sale Act. Mr Truss’ office says the amendments will lift foreign ownership restrictions and abolish requirements that it keeps the majority of its maintenance and other facilities in Australia. 
 
A statement on the QANTAS website has said the company is still committed to achieving $ 2 billion in savings over the next three years and will be making no comment on the speculation before they report to the market on Thursday.
Shares in Qantas Airways are trading up 0.6 per cent at $1.25. 
 
Ramsay Health Care Limited (ASX:RHC) has reported a 15.8 per cent rise in interim net profit to $171.6 million for the first half of fiscal 2014. 
 
The company operates numerous hospitals in Asia and Europe and reported increased earnings in all foreign jurisdictions, most notably France where EBITDA was 61.9 per cent higher for the half on the back of its acquisition of 33 psychiatric facilities. 
 
CEO Christopher Rex says the company will be pursuing further capacity expansion in its Australian operations as well as joint ventures.
 
Ramsay will pay an interim dividend of 34 cents per share, fully franked, 17.2% higher than the same time last year. Shares in Ramsay Health Care are trading up 6.71 per cent at $47.55. 
  
The best and worst performers

The best performing sector is Health Care gaining on the back of the Ramsay results, trading 136 points higher at 14,733. Shares in Ramsay Health Care Limited (ASX:RHC) have risen 6.71 per cent and trading at $47.55. Shares in Mesoblast Limited (ASX:MSB) and Acrux Limited (ASX:ACR) are also stronger. 
 
The worst performing sector is Materials, falling 62 points to 10,713. Shares in BlueScope Steel Limited (ASX:BSL) have fallen 3.1 per cent, trading at $6.11. Shares in Arrium Limited (ASX:ARI) and Atlas Iron Limited (ASX:AGO)are also lower. 
 
Gold and the dollar

Gold is trading at $US1,336 an ounce.

The Australian dollar is buying $US0.9029.