Aug 15 (Reuters) - Gold held steady early on Monday as sluggish U.S. retail sales data on Friday lowered expectations of a near-term interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve. FUNDAMENTALS * Spot gold was mostly unchanged at $1,337.16 an ounce at 0101 GMT. The metal rose as much as 1.4 percent to a high of $1,355.80 on Friday, but ended the day slightly lower on profit-booking. * U.S. gold was also nearly flat at $1,342 an ounce. * U.S. retail sales were unexpectedly flat in July as Americans cut back on purchases of clothing and other goods, pointing to a moderation in consumer spending that could temper expectations of an acceleration in economic growth in the third quarter. * The dollar was on the defensive early on Monday, weighed down by downbeat U.S. data that tempered expectations of a rate hike by the Fed. * Gold is highly sensitive to rising U.S. interest rates, as the opportunity cost of holding the non-yielding asset increases while boosting the dollar, in which it is priced. * Speculators cut their net long positions in COMEX gold and silver futures and options in the week to Aug.9. In gold, they reduced their net long position by 11,516 lots, bringing it to 255,773 lots, and in silver they cut their net long position by 3,409 lots to 89,132 lots, Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) data showed. * Physical gold demand in Asia was muted last week as higher prices turned off buyers, with discounts in India widening ahead of a festive season that could spur appetite in the world's second largest consumer. * Holdings of SPDR Gold Trust, the world's largest gold-backed exchange-traded fund, fell 1.22 percent to 960.45 tonnes on Friday from Thursday. ' * Mali expects to produce 47.37 tonnes of gold this year, lower than an earlier forecast of 52.85 tonnes, owing to a failure to restart its Kodieran mine, the Mines Ministry said on Saturday. * For the top stories on metals and other news, click or MARKET REPORT * Asian shares inched back from one-year peaks on Monday after Japanese data showed the world's third largest economy hit an air pocket last quarter, while oil prices held onto their recent gains. DATA AHEAD (GMT) 1230 U.S. New York Fed manufacturing August 1400 U.S. NAHB housing market index August (Reporting By Nallur Sethuraman in Bengaluru; Editing by Joseph Radford)
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