PRECIOUS-Gold rises on U.S. taper bets, upbeat Chinese data
* Gold heads towards 1-month high on taper delay talk
* Dollar still under pressure, hits 2-year low vs euro
* Physical demand in Asia eases as prices rise
LONDON, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Gold firmed on Thursday as investors were tempted back to bullion by expectations that the Federal Reserve will postpone tapering its monetary stimulus programme, and as financial markets were boosted by optimistic Chinese manufacturing data.
Gold fell to a near three-year low in June on the back of speculation that the Fed was set to curb its stimulus programme, a key driver of higher gold prices.
A two-week government shutdown earlier this month boosted expectations the U.S. central bank will delay such a move until at least early next year, and helped drive gold to one-month highs at $1,344.46 an ounce earlier this week.
Spot gold was up 0.4 percent at $1,336.50 an ounce at 0930 GMT, while U.S. gold futures for December delivery were up $2.80 an ounce at $1,336.80.
"Postponement of tapering means higher liquidity in the market, probably higher inflation risks in the longer term," Commerzbank analyst Eugen Weinberg said. "That's likely to lead to higher interest in gold."
Ultra-loose monetary policy from various central banks was a key driver of gold prices to record highs in the wake of the financial crisis, as it kept interest rates - the opportunity cost of holding non-yielding gold - low, while stoking fears of inflation.
Expectations that Fed tapering would be postponed kept the dollar index under pressure on Thursday, though the euro retreated from an early two-year high against the U.S. unit after disappointing euro zone data.
Positive economic news from China, the world's second-largest gold consumer, also helped support prices of the precious metal as it drove oil and stocks markets higher.
Analysts are now awaiting key U.S. weekly jobless claims at 1230 GMT, and September housing data at 1400 GMT, for further clues on the health of the U.S. economy.
PHYSICAL BUYING EASES
Goldman Sachs said it expects gold prices to fall in 2014 driven by improving U.S. economic data, rising real rates and the commencement of tapering of monetary stimulus by the U.S. Federal Reserve.
The investment bank expects gold price to decline to $1,144 per ounce in 2014. "Gold will likely remain volatile in a $1,250-$1,350/oz range until clarity on tapering," it said in a note to clients dated Oct. 23.
In the physical market, jewellers who had chased bullion at about $1,310 an ounce held off further purchases as prices rose, but dealers expected gold demand in top consumer India to pick up ahead of the Diwali festival of lights in November.
"Premiums in India are very high because of limited imports. I would say India is buying but not aggressively," said a dealer in Hong Kong.
A shortage of gold triggered by the government's move to curb imports and control a rising trade deficit has sent premiums in India to more than $100 an ounce over London prices this month.
Premiums in Hong Kong were unchanged from last week at $1.50 to the spot London prices.
Among other precious metals, silver was up 0.5 percent at $22.61 an ounce, while spot platinum was up 0.3 percent at $1,434.60 an ounce and spot palladium was down 0.3 percent at $742 an ounce.