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PRECIOUS-Gold holds close to five-month peak ahead of Fed

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(Updates prices)
* Fed policy statement due at 1900 GMT
* SPDR gold holdings climb to 4-month highs
* GRAPHIC-2018 asset returns: By Swati Verma BENGALURU, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Gold eased slightly on Wednesday but stayed near a more than five-month peak scaled earlier in the day on increasing speculation that the U.S. Federal Reserve could signal a slower pace of interest rate hikes next year. After climbing for the last two sessions, gold was down 0.1 percent at $1,248.01 per ounce at 1359 GMT. The metal had risen to its highest since July 11 at $1,251.39 earlier. U.S. gold futures eased 0.1 percent to $1,252.10 per ounce. "The general backdrop for gold is still positive," said Commerzbank analyst Carsten Fritsch, adding the price dip could be attributed to some profit-taking after the initial jump. Markets are preparing for a Federal Reserve rate decision at 1900 GMT after its final two-day policy meeting of the year.


"It is the most uncertain Fed meeting in a while. The Fed fund futures are pricing in a likelihood of roughly 2/3 in favour of a rate hike in this meeting, which is way below from an almost done deal just a few days back," Fritsch said. The U.S. central bank may signal an earlier end to its monetary tightening in the face of financial market volatility and rising recession fears. Expectations of lower interest rates tend to support gold, as they reduce the opportunity cost of holding non-yielding bullion and put pressure on the greenback. The dollar slipped 0.3 percent after touching a one-week low versus a basket of currencies in the previous session, making gold cheaper for holders of other currencies. "It is not a mystery that all eyes are now on the Fed's meeting. Gold is supported by expectations for a dovish foreguidance for 2019-2020," said ActivTrades chief analyst Carlo Alberto De Casa.


"From a technical point of view, the trend remains bullish," De Casa said. "We're still on track for seeing bullion continuing its recovery to $1,260." Gold has risen nearly 8 percent from 19-month lows hit in mid-August and is on track for its best quarter since March 2017. Rising investor interest was reflected in inflows to the largest gold-backed exchange-traded fund, New York's SPDR Gold Trust . Holdings in the ETF jumped 1.1 percent to 771.79 tonnes, the highest since Aug. 20, on Tuesday. Meanwhile, silver was up 0.2 percent at $14.66, while platinum gained 0.5 percent to $791.10. Spot palladium rose 0.3 percent to $1,247.46 per ounce, having hit a record high of $1,269.50 earlier this week. (Reporting by Swati Verma in Bengaluru Editing by Edmund Blair and Jan Harvey)

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