Johannesburg - South African stocks ended a touch higher on Wednesday as gains in bourse heavyweights such as BHP Billiton offset sharp falls in banks and retailers.

Banks featured on the decliners' list, a day after Moody's downgraded the big four lenders, citing a lower likelihood of support from the central bank to protect creditors in the wake of African Bank's debt crisis.

Standard Bank dropped 1.54 percent, Barclays Africa gave up 2.1 percent, FirstRand was off 1.3 percent and Nedbank lost 0.9 percent.

But some investors say the step taken by Moody's was not warranted because the four banks had different business models to the collapsed African Bank.

“Maybe this is a little bit premature. They probably could have waited another six or so months to see what happened,” said Richard Segal, emerging markets strategist at Jefferies.

On the upside, bourse and mining heavyweight BHP Billiton was up 1.6 percent at 353.14 rand, recouping some of the losses suffered in the previous session when it held off on a share buyback.

Rival Anglo American added 1.19 percent, tracking higher metal prices.

The JSE Top-40 index edged up 0.25 percent to 46,313 and the broader All-share index inched up 0.14 percent to 51,436.

With more interest rate hikes predicted, investors also offloaded retailers as fears grew the spending power of households, whose debt to disposable income is at worryingly high levels, would diminish further.

Massmart plunged 8.6 percent to 134 rand after the unit of Wal-Mart flagged a 29 percent decline in first-half profit.

Rival Shoprite, which posted its slowest profit growth in 15 years on Tuesday, fell 2.4 percent to 142 rand.

Trade was active with 165 million shares trade, slightly below last year's daily average of 176 million shares, according to preliminary bourse statistics. - Reuters