London - White metals stole a march on bullion on Thursday, with gains in platinum and palladium outpacing those of gold as data pointed to an improved economic backdrop in China.
Gold prices were trading very narrowly, unmoved by the European Central Bank's widely expected decision to leave euro area interest rates on hold, leaving traders to focus on the ECB president's press conference for further policy hints.
Spot platinum hit its highest in a month, while palladium was on course for a third day of gains - in stark contrast to gold, which struggled to rally from a recent 4 1/2 month low at $1625.79.
By 15:26, platinum was up 1.3% at $1611.50 per ounce, while palladium had surged 1.8% to $695.90. Gold held a firmer tone, rising 0.2% to $1661.85.
With gold and platinum's recent moves in different directions, the differential between the two had narrowed to its tightest since April 2012.
China's export growth rebounded more strongly than expected in December from a three-month low, expanding at the fastest rate in seven months, data showed on Thursday. The outlook for 2013 remained cloudy, however, with US and European demand for Chinese goods still subdued.
Signs of continuous improvement in US auto sales have also given a brighter tone to platinum group metals, alongside supply issues created by labour unrest in South Africa's producing belt.
"The overall (Chinese) trade data is looking positive in terms of exports. For PGMs there's some positivity, surprisingly, on the auto sector," Citigroup analyst David Wilson said.
ECB in focus
Gold was hemmed into tight ranges as mixed views circulated on the chances of a rate cut in the next few months due to a murky economic outlook.
Central bank monetary stimulus was a key driver behind gold's 12th year of annual gains in 2012 as investors were drawn to bullion as a hedge against inflation.
Gold has been moving in a narrow range of about $25 this week, with the upside capped by hints that open-ended US bond buying may be nearing its limit.
Gold hit a more than four-month low after minutes from the US Federal Reserve's last meeting showed officials were concerned about the side effects of its bond-buying programme.
"The market got a little concerned about how aggressive the Fed will be," said Jeremy Friesen, commodity strategist at Societe Generale in Hong Kong, adding that the market was expected to rebound.
SocGen expected gold to average $1 700 an ounce in the first quarter of the year as well as for all of 2013.
Robust purchases on the physical bullion market in Asia were showing signs of slowing down after prices settled in a range, dealers said.