May 30, 2018 / 3:03 AM / 20 days ago

Australian shares hit lowest in a month on Italy turmoil; NZ higher

* Investors seek safe haven in gold, pharma stocks

* NZ stocks higher on telecom & industrial stocks

By Devika Syamnath

May 30 (Reuters) - 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 U.S. 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 percent 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.

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

Australia’s “Big Four” banks lost between 1.2 percent and 2.2 percent 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 U.S-listed Cigna Corp for NZ$700 million ($483.63 million) as its parent boosts its capital base by hiving off non-core businesses.

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

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

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

Healthcare stock CSL Ltd was the top boost to the benchmark, rising as much as 1.8 percent 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 percent 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 percent and 1.6 percent, each.

$1 = 1.4474 New Zealand dollars Reporting by Devika Syamnath in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Karthika Namboothiri in Bengaluru; Editing by Eric Meijer

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