PRECIOUS-Gold firms as US budget talks progress lifts stocks
* U.S. lawmakers inch towards deal on "fiscal cliff"
* European stocks rise towards 2012 highs, supporting gold
* Chinese demand for gold seen picking up before Lunar New Year
(Updates throughout, changes dateline, pvs SINGAPORE) LONDON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Gold held near $1,700 an ounce on Tuesday, supported by gains in stocks and other commodities on hopes U.S. lawmakers will reach a deal to avert a fiscal crisis, though moves were muted as many investors took to the sidelines ahead of year-end. European shares rose towards their highest this year, tracking gains on Wall Street and in Asia, on signs of progress over a compromise to halt $600 billion in austerity measures that could hurt the world's top economy. Differences over how to resolve the so-called "fiscal cliff" narrowed significantly Monday night as President Barack Obama made a counter-offer to Republicans that included a major change in position on tax hikes for the wealthy, according to a source familiar with the talks. Hopes that a deal may be imminent boosted assets seen as higher risk, with which gold has been closely correlated this year. As well as the rise in shares, oil prices climbed more than 0.5 percent, copper firmed and the euro strengthened. "The sense that the deal is there is helping gold," Nic Brown, an analyst at Natixis, said. "Gold and silver are moving up with other commodities. Everything seems a little bit happier." Spot gold was at $1,698.04 an ounce at 1208 GMT, little changed from $1,697.65 late on Monday, while U.S. gold inched up 0.1 percent to $1,699.40. Silver was up 0.4 percent at $32.38 an ounce A backdrop of easy monetary policy from the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks should provide support for prices, analysts said, as investors worried about currency debasement and rising inflation flee to hard assets. Gold prices hit their highest in a month last week after the Fed announced a fresh round of monetary stimulus in the form of a pledge to buy $45 billion a month in longer-term Treasuries. They quickly dropped back, however. "With the FOMC out of the way, the price pullback in gold was triggered by profit-taking before the year-end," VTB Capital said in a note. "At the same time, the previously oversold (dollar) is starting to consolidate." "As before, we expect subdued action until the market is clear on the fiscal cliff negotiations in the U.S. Congress, while sustained gains are still unlikely as we continue in a sideways pattern near December lows."
CHINESE DEMAND EXPECTED TO PICK UP Physical demand from China, which is neck-and-neck with India as the world's top gold consumer, is expected to pick up ahead of the Chinese New Year in February, Natixis's Brown said. "We are entering a period of seasonally strong demand from China, and this can support gold prices between now and the beginning of the Chinese New Year in February." Gold wholesalers in India held off from fresh buying on Tuesday, despite the ongoing wedding season, as prices rose for a third session to their highest in a week. Among other precious metals, platinum was up 0.5 percent at $1,610.25 per ounce, and spot palladium eased 0.2 percent to $695.25 per ounce. HSBC raised its average price forecast for platinum in 2013 to $1,710 per ounce from $1,625, and said it expected the metal to record a second consecutive annual deficit next year of 256,000 ounces. It cited supply disruptions in major producer South Africa, which has seen a wave of strikes leading to deadly violence this year, as a major factor. "The possibility exists for further disruptions to production in South Africa. Additionally, the long-term challenges of low prices for platinum make a sizable amount of current production uneconomical," it said. "This leads us to believe that higher prices are necessary to sustain production." "With the major exception of jewellery and investment, platinum demand is highly price-inelastic. Therefore, should industrial or auto demand rebound above forecasts, we believe the market response may be soundly positive for prices, especially if investment demand remains firm."
(Editing by Jan Harvey and Jane Baird)