FOREX-Euro steady vs dollar but bets rise for an ECB rate cut
* German business morale falls short of expectations * Euro steady vs dollar after hitting three-week low * Dollar falls vs yen after U.S. durable goods data * Dollar still hovering within sight of 100 yen mark By Julie Haviv NEW YORK, April 24 (Reuters) - The euro traded flat against the dollar after hitting a near three-week low on Wednesday as hopes that Italy can resolve its political gridlock were offset by weak German data that fanned speculation the European Central Bank will cut rates soon. The euro had fallen after a survey by Germany's Ifo think-tank showed business sentiment dropped for a second month in April, fuelling concerns about the health of the euro zone's largest economy. The euro was already vulnerable after German PMI data on Tuesday showed business activity dropping sharply in April. "The release of softer IFO data from Germany drove a brief decline in the euro, albeit one that was quickly retraced," said Eric Theoret, forex strategist at Scotiabank in Toronto. The euro dropped to $1.2954, its lowest since April 5, before paring losses to last trade at $1.2994, flat on the day. An Asian central bank and a supra-national investor were cited as buyers earlier in the global session. "With regards to the outlook for the ECB, focus has turned to next Thursday's meeting, with rising expectations for an easing in monetary policy," Theoret said. The European Central Bank currently has rates at a record low 0.75 percent. Recent comments by ECB policymakers have stressed falling inflation and poor euro zone growth prospects, suggesting policymakers are leaning towards a further cut at their next meeting on May 2. The ECB has room to act on interest rates if economic conditions remain weak, ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio said on Wednesday. With interest rates in the United States and Japan at or near zero, an ECB rate cut would diminish the euro's advantage. The ECB, however, has refrained from pumping massive amounts of money into the euro zone through asset purchases, unlike the Federal Reserve or the Bank of Japan's actions. Nevertheless, investors may view an ECB rate cut as positive for the euro because the central bank is taking action to stimulate economic growth. Traders said the euro drew some support from reports that Italian President Giorgio Napolitano had called on Enrico Letta, deputy head of the centre-left Democratic Party, to form a new coalition government. The formation of a government in the euro zone's third-largest economy after months of uncertainty would offer relief to investors looking to buy assets in the region. "But the risk-reward in the euro is to sell it into any rise to $1.3100/50," said Mankash Jain, head of FX and Investment Management at hedge fund Solo Capital in London. "The data from Germany has been weak, the Ifo was weak and if the ECB were to cut rates next week, the euro would fall." DOLLAR WEIGHED BY WEAK U.S. DATA The dollar fell against the yen after data showed orders for long-lasting U.S. manufactured goods recorded their biggest drop in seven months in March and a gauge of planned business spending rose modestly, adding to signs of a slowdown in factory activity. While the yen remains weighed by the Bank of Japan's ambitious bond-buying program announced this month, concerns about global growth have lifted the currency recently. The dollar hit a four-year high of 99.94 yen on April 11 after the Bank of Japan unveiled a sweeping monetary stimulus program which entails buying $1.4 trillion of bonds in less than two years. The dollar last traded at 99.38 yen, down 0.1 percent on the day. Many traders are braced for a test of the 100 yen mark in coming days, although offers were reported around 99.80-85 yen that could limit the dollar's gains in the short term. The euro last traded at 129.08 yen, down 0.2 percent and well off a more than three-year high of 131.10 yen hit earlier this month. Meanwhile, despite expectations of a rate cut by the ECB, the euro rose to a five-week high against the Swiss franc on renewed speculation that the Swiss National Bank could raise the floor imposed on the euro/Swiss franc pair to 1.25 francs from 1.20. The euro rose to 1.2319 francs, its highest since mid-March. It went past a reported options barrier at 1.2300 francs, with traders citing talk of a Swiss bank selling the franc against the dollar. Looking ahead, market participants on Thursday will likely focus on a weekly Japanese investor flow report. The BoJ's bond-buying plan has caused Japanese government bond yields to collapse. Many speculate investors in Japan may eventually park money overseas, where yields are higher, but data so far has shown that has not been the case.