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Australia: Shares hit lowest in a month on Italy turmoil; New Zealand higher


[BENGALURU] Australian shares showed broad-based losses on Wednesday as global risk appetite was sapped by the political crisis in Italy and a consequent rally in safe-haven US Treasury bonds.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell to its weakest since April 30, dropping 37.7 points to 5975.9 at 0250 GMT as investors switched to defensive plays. The benchmark gained 0.2 per cent on Tuesday.

Italy has searched for a new government since inconclusive elections in March and may hold repeat elections as early as July, which investors fear could become a disruptive de facto referendum on the European Union and the euro.

"The worry is a financial crisis started by the situation in Italy," said Damian Rooney, director of equity sales at Argonaut.

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Banks accounted for more than half of the ASX's losses with the index of financial stocks losing up to 1.5 per cent to its worst for well over a year.

Australia's "Big Four" banks lost between 1.2 per cent and 2.2 per cent with Australia and New Zealand Banking hitting its lowest in four weeks.

ANZ Bank New Zealand agreed to sell its New Zealand life insurance arm to US-listed Cigna Corp for NZ$700 million (S$650.5 million) as its parent boosts its capital base by hiving off non-core businesses.

Mining stocks fell as much as 1.1 per cent on weakness in metal and iron ore prices.

Global mining heavyweights Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton shed up to 1.6 per cent and 1.2 per cent, respectively.

"It's a very short-term trade. China growth is still in existence," said Argonaut's Rooney.

Prices of steelmaking raw materials in China recovered overnight from multi-week lows seen on Tuesday, propped up by gains in construction rebar. ASX investors took shelter in defensive stocks, driving gains on the gold and healthcare indexes which added up to 0.8 per cent and 1.2 per cent, respectively.

Index heavyweight gold producer Evolution Mining led its sector and rose as much as 1.9 per cent while Saracen Mineral Holdings gained as much as 4.2 per cent to its best since May 10.

Healthcare stock CSL Ltd was the top boost to the benchmark, rising as much as 1.8 per cent to a record, with a weaker Australian dollar making pharma exports more competitive.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index added 0.1 per cent or 11.07 points to 8646.93 at 0256 GMT.

Telecom and industrial stocks led gainers on the index with telco Spark New Zealand Ltd and Auckland International Airport Ltd climbing up to 2.3 per cent and 1.6 per cent, each.