Gold sets 3-wk high on option expiry, euro zone debt

NEW YORK/LONDON Wed May 25, 2011 4:32pm EDT

Five-tael (6.65 ounces or 190 grams) gold bars are seen at a jewellery store in Hong Kong in this April 21, 2011 illustration photo. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Five-tael (6.65 ounces or 190 grams) gold bars are seen at a jewellery store in Hong Kong in this April 21, 2011 illustration photo.

Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip

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NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - Gold hit a three-week high on Wednesday, boosted by concern over the debt crisis in euro zone countries such as Greece and as June options expire in the COMEX futures market.

Spot gold rose as far as $1,532.10 per troy ounce, its highest since May 4, but pulled back to $1,526.05 by 3:20 p.m. EDT (2020 GMT), still higher than $1,525.75 late in New York on Tuesday.

Benchmark COMEX June gold futures finished $3.40, or 0.22 percent, higher at $1,526.70 an ounce in New York. They rallied earlier to $1,532.30, the loftiest since May 4.

"There's been a little push over the last few days heading into the options expiry today, trying to get it above $1,500. They got it above there," said Fred Schoenstein, a trader at Heraeus Precious Metals Management in New York.

"After they expire," he added, "where it goes will depend on what happens in the euro zone. But I don't expect it to sell off significantly and it will probably hold above $1,500."

Schoenstein said euro zone debt concerns would likely push gold back up to test the $1,550 range and even the previous high on June COMEX at $1,577.40 an ounce.

Euro-priced gold hit a record 1,088.11 euros an ounce, Reuters data showed. Gold priced in sterling scaled a session peak of 944.82 pounds per ounce, just short of the lifetime high of 944.87 struck on Tuesday.

Escalating worries about Greece's finances and potential contagion effects on other countries, including Portugal and Ireland, triggered a flurry of investor buying.

The euro zone debt crisis has also weighed on the single currency against the dollar. <USD/>

"It's balancing debt problems against the impact it's having on the euro versus the dollar," said Daniel Major, analyst at RBS. "Underlying physical demand in Asia is relatively resilient."

The dollar slipped after new orders for long-lasting U.S. manufactured goods fell more than expected in April to record their largest decline in six months.

A stronger U.S. currency makes commodities priced in dollars more expensive for holders of other currencies.

OPPORTUNITY COST

A yardstick for investor interest is holdings of the largest gold-backed exchange-traded fund (ETF), New York's SPDR Gold Trust, which rose 0.38 percent to above 39 million ounces on Tuesday from Monday.

"Fresh inflows into gold ETFs following sizable outflows in recent weeks hint at rising investor interest," Credit Suisse Private Banking said in a note. "Low real yields should prove additionally supportive."

Investors are more likely to hold gold when interest rates are low, as there is little or no opportunity cost for owning the precious metal, which does not earn interest or dividends.

However, holdings of the largest silver-backed ETF, New York's iShares Silver Trust, dropped 0.51 percent to 324.253 million ounces on Tuesday from Monday.

Spot silver hit $37.97 an ounce, its highest since May 11, and last fetched $37.90. The late Tuesday bid was $36.53. The industrial precious metal is down 35 percent since touching a record $49.51 on April 28.

Silver's trading volume is about a third of the levels attained when its price hit record highs, Schoenstein at Heraeus said.

"I think people are putting some of that money into gold."

Platinum and palladium, used to make autocatalysts, are expected to remain in tight supply with auto sales forecast to post double-digit growth in 2011.

Spot platinum was bid at $1,777 an ounce, up from $1,761.55 on Tuesday but off an earlier one-week high at $1,782.50.

Palladium jumped to $747.22 from $732.53 an ounce, having touched a three-week high of $749.50.

(Additional reporting by Lewa Pardomuan; editing by Dale Hudson)

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