| NEW YORK
NEW YORK A top bond investor for BlackRock Inc, the world's largest asset manager, is bargain-hunting in Europe as investors fret over a coming vote that may shake Italy's government.
Rick Rieder, BlackRock's chief investment officer of global fixed income, said on Monday that he has been scaling up exposure to European banks and other financial stocks that have been beaten up by jittery markets.
A Dec. 4 Italian constitutional referendum has rattled investors, who worry the result could unseat Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government and stoke a banking crisis.
"Some of the banks and financials in broader Europe have traded at cheaper levels because of the 'risk'," Rieder told Reuters. "We have definitely added some banks and financials because we think they've gotten reasonable."
He also said he is still holding exposure to Italian government debt, too, though at lower levels than in the past.
Italian banking stocks have lost more than half their value over the last year and they fell 3.9 percent on Monday, while Italian government bonds underperformed a wider rally in fixed income.
A JPMorgan Chase & Co research report distributed on Monday predicted Italian sovereign debt will continue to underperform in the next several days but recommended buying the bonds "right before the vote."
The bank's report also said Italian banks could have a "knee-jerk sell-off" if the referendum fails but added the shares already reflected "a lot of negativity."
BlackRock's Rieder said he is conservatively positioned given the risks, but added fears over the stability of European banks may have gone too far.
"We think that is somewhat overstated," he said. "It's making a series of assumptions. One is that Renzi resigns. Two is that you're giving up on any plans to help stabilize the banking system. And both of those are big assumptions."
BlackRock, which manages more than $5.1 trillion in assets, warned earlier on Monday that a widely forecast "No" vote in the referendum on proposed changes to the country's constitution could nonetheless delay "fixes to the country's sick banking system."
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Sandra Maler)