Gold near three-week high on softer equities, physical demand

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Gold extended its new year rally to a sixth session on Tuesday, pushing the safe-haven metal to near three-week highs with support from weaker equities and robust physical demand in China.

U.S. gold futures also steadied after unusually sharp movements in the previous session, when prices fell 3 percent for a brief period before recovering.

Spot gold has gained nearly 4 percent in the past six sessions, after a 28 percent drop last year, mainly due to weakness in stock markets and as funds reallocate positions at the start of the year.

"We have been rather surprised by gold's resilience over the course of the last week, but suspect that it's upside staying power will be limited," INTL FCStone analyst Edward Meir said.

Meir said prices will be hurt by the U.S. stimulus tapering, the possibility of a stronger dollar, low inflation and outflows from exchange traded funds - factors that caused bullion to tumble in 2013 after a 12-year rally.

Spot gold had gained 0.3 percent to $1,241.36 an ounce by 0333 GMT, not far from its three-week peak of $1,248.30.

Asian shares steadied on Tuesday after four days of losses, while the dollar rebounded from overnight weakness after disappointing U.S. services sector data raised concerns about stuttering growth in the world's largest economy.

Gold is seen as an alternative to risky investments such as equities.

"We believe the gold price looks likely to move sideways in choppy action," HSBC analysts said in a note. "Investment demand is still sluggish but underlying physical consumption is positive."

Investors were heartened by buying interest in the physical markets, where the outlook for demand from top buyers - China and India - looked optimistic.

Indian officials are in talks to cut a record high import duty on gold and relax rules on exports, government sources said, after the measures helped narrow the country's trade deficit but now threaten to encourage smuggling.

The stringent rules cut off demand from India last year, adding pressure to gold prices.

In China, premiums for 99.99 percent purity gold on the Shanghai Gold Exchange climbed to about $24 from Monday's close of $20, indicating robust demand.

Volumes traded on the exchange hit their highest on Monday since May.

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