SYDNEY (AP) â¿¿ Westpac Banking Corp., one of Australia's largest lenders, said Wednesday that its first-half profit rose 38 percent as bad debt charges fell. Net profit for the six months to March 31 was 3.96 billion Australian dollars ($4.29 billion), up from AU$2.88 billion in the same period a year ago, the Sydney-based bank said in a statement. The figure includes $1.1 billion worth of one-off tax benefits from Westpac's acquisition of smaller rival St. George Bank in 2008. "I think the Australian economy and the Australian banking environment is still a really healthy place to be operating in," Westpac chief financial officer Phil Coffey said, citing the nation's low unemployment rate of 4.9 percent. Cash earnings increased seven percent to AU$3.17 billion, in line with expectations. Impairment charges fell 47 percent from a year earlier to AU$463 million. In its statement, the bank said that while it expects consumers to remain cautious, "we expect sentiment to gradually improve over the remainder of 2011." Westpac shares were down AU$0.20, or 0.81 percent, to AU$24.53, in early morning trading.