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What should investors do as Italian crisis sends euro stock markets crashing?

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I’ve long been a champion of the EU as a free market association (and I think it’s a modern tragedy that the UK is leaving), but a staunch opponent of that flawed idea that is the common currency, the euro. Sadly, the latter could bring down the former.

While EU leaders have had opportunities to run a tightly-regulated ship, I reckon one of the potentially most calamitous mistakes was fudging the rules to allow Italy to remain a core part of the euro, despite that country’s inept fiscal state.

The Italian farce is raising its head again, as political machinations are badly hitting the continent’s stock markets. With the ongoing power struggle between populist eurosceptics who did well in March’s election and the incumbent pro-EU parties failing to make much headway, it looks like we could be in for fresh elections in September.

Italy’s debt stands at around 130% of its GDP, and that soars over France’s still-high level of around 96% and dwarf’s Germany’s mere 68%. Do those sound like three countries that can comfortably share a currency and common banking rules? Hmm.

There’s been a bit of a panic sell-off of Italian debt on Tuesday, which the head of Italian bank UniCredit has described as unjustified (well he would say that, wouldn’t he?) And that’s led investors to fear for the health of Italian banks, with share prices of a number of them tumbling.

Markets falling

The Italian FTSE MIB index is down 2.4% as I write, with France’s CAC 40 down 1.2% and Germany’s DAX down 1%. And even the FTSE 100 has lost 1.2%. Those aren’t massive falls just yet, but they could presage a worse downturn if investors’ biggest fears should be realised.

And those fears, surely, must be of a populist attempt for Italy to quit the euro. It’s probably unlikely to happen, but even a growing anti-euro movement based on the rejection of EU-led austerity could deepen a longer-term north-south divide within the EU.

The possibility of that scenario is already pushing some investors away from euro risk, and European markets could be in for a few shaky months ahead of the likely new Italian elections.

What should we do as private investors? The obvious thing is don’t panic. Next, think back to what the Greek crisis did for us, and which Brexit then massively eclipsed. Brexit gave investors some great bargains, especially in the banking and finance sectors.

Shares in Lloyds Banking Group plummeted when the referendum result was known, but investors who took advantage of it have enjoyed a 19% gain since that date, plus bigger effective dividend yields through buying when the shares were being punished.

And Lloyds has been a relatively poor performer, with Barclays shares up 44% since that Brexit date (albeit without the big dividends). And Royal Bank of Scotland shares have soared by 64%.

I reckon continuing political uncertainty in Italy is likely to put downward pressure on banking shares again, including British ones. In fact, they’ve all lost ground on Tuesday — Barclays down 2.2%, Lloyds down 1.6%, RBS down 2.5%, and even HSBC Holdings shares have fallen 1.2%.

And other than finance stocks, I say we should just keep on buying shares in top UK companies to help fund our retirements, and thank the Italians for helping push prices down a bit for us.

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Alan Oscroft owns shares of Lloyds Banking Group. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Barclays, HSBC Holdings, and Lloyds Banking Group. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.