PRECIOUS-Gold ticks lower on dollar, palladium holds near 2-1/2-yr high

* Gold down half a pct, physical market slow

* U.S. dollar steady near 3-week high

* Coming Up: US National activity index; 1230 GMT

(Adds dealers' quotes, updates prices) SINGAPORE, March 24 (Reuters) - Gold fell half a percent on Monday after posting last week its biggest weekly drop since November on the prospect of a U.S. interest rate hike in early 2015 that has boosted the dollar and dented the metal's appeal as a hedge against inflation. A lack of activity in the physical sector also raised some concerns, with demand from top consumer China likely to be subdued because of a weak yuan and the discounted prices on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, which discourage imports. Gold eased $7.14 an ounce to $1,326.80 by 0320 GMT,

down from a six-month high of $1,391.76 hit early last week. The precious metal touched a record high above $1,900 in 2011, when a worsening debt crisis in Europe sparked a buying rush. Gold is under pressure from the U.S. dollar as the U.S. Federal Reserve scales back its quantitative easing programme and has suggested a rise in interest rates quicker than expected, said Ronald Leung, chief dealer at Lee Cheong Gold Dealers in Hong Kong. "We can say the initial support will be $1,325 to $1,320. The downside may be $1,300, and let's see if it can break that or not. On the upside, I think $1,350 could be capped," Leung said. U.S. gold was at $1,327.70 an ounce, down $8.30. The dollar index was steady at 80.149, not far off a three-week peak of 80.354 set on Thursday. A stronger dollar weighs on gold and other commodities as it makes purchases in other currencies pricier. The 99.99 percent purity gold on the Shanghai Gold Exchange traded below cash and U.S. gold futures. Premiums for gold bars in Hong Kong were unchanged from last week at $1 to the spot London prices.

In Tokyo, gold bars were offered at premiums of up to 25 cents to the spot London prices, higher than zero last week as supply tightened. "Japan's fiscal year ends this month and some trading houses are closing their positions. They have exported their gold stocks to London, so there's a bit of shortage in physical supply," said a dealer in Tokyo. "But at the same time, gold prices in Japan are still high, so there's selling from the general public. So the market is a bit balanced," said the dealer, referring to gold futures on the Tokyo Commodity Exchange <0JAU:> Gold investors may be shifting their attention away from Ukraine, but palladium held near its highest since August 2011 on a miners' strike in South Africa and concerns the standoff between major producer Russia and the West over Crimea could escalate. NATO's top military commander said on Sunday that Russia had built up a "very sizeable" force on its border with Ukraine and Moscow may have Moldova, another ex-Soviet republic, in its sights after annexing Crimea. Asian shares gave up earlier gains on Monday after the China HSBC flash manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) fell to an eight-month low in March. SPDR Gold Trust, the world's largest gold-backed exchange-traded fund, said its holdings rose 0.52 percent to 816.97 tonnes on Friday from 812.78 tonnes on Thursday.

Hedge funds and money managers raised their bullish bets in gold futures and options to the highest level since December 2012, as worries about tensions in Ukraine and China's economy boosted speculative interest for a sixth straight week, according to data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on Friday.

Precious metals prices 0320 GMT

Metal Last Change Pct chg YTD pct chg Volume Spot Gold 1326.80 -7.14 -0.54 10.11 Spot Silver 20.16 -0.10 -0.49 3.86 Spot Platinum 1432.25 1.00 +0.07 4.73 Spot Palladium 791.00 2.00 +0.25 10.94 COMEX GOLD APR4 1327.70 -8.30 -0.62 10.48 17579 COMEX SILVER MAY4 20.19 -0.13 +0.00 4.21 4519 Euro/Dollar 1.3797 Dollar/Yen 102.47

(Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)