Platinum was set for its biggest one-day rally in a month on Wednesday after the spread of labour unrest near the South African town of Rustenburg forced top producer Anglo American Platinum temporarily to halt its operations there.
The gold price pared gains but held near its highest levels in six months ahead of the US Federal Reserve's policy decision on Thursday and after Germany's constitutional court approved the country's participation in the permanent euro zone bailout fund, which boosted the euro against the dollar.
Amplats, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of global platinum supply, with around 2.5 million ounces in yearly output, said it suspended operations at its Rustenburg complex to protect employees from outside intimidation.
A Reuters photographer at Amplats' Bathopele mine, which is part of the Rustenburg complex, said around 1,500 stick-waving protesters demonstrated outside the facility, calling for its immediate shutdown.
Amplats' 600,000-ounce a year Rustenburg complex is the company's second largest by production, after the Amandebult facility.
Spot platinum rose by 2.7 percent to $1,639.49 an ounce by 16:38 SA time, on course for its biggest one-day percentage gain since Aug. 16, and at its highest in five months.
The price has risen by nearly 20 percent since a strike at number three producer Lonmin turned violent last month, leaving 44 dead and dozens injured in clashes between police and striking workers.
Yet a forecast surplus of metal, stemming from faltering demand from the European car industry, could limit further price gains, analysts said.
“Prior to this, this was a market that was in surplus this year. It might move towards balance, but it's not a market that is going to be in a significant deficit this year given how demand has been,” David Jollie, an analyst at Mitsui Precious Metals, said.
“The Rustenburg operations being suspended, for Anglo Platinum, is clearly a big issue. But it's something that happens reasonably often in piecemeal fashion for other reasons. So in itself, it's interesting, but doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot for the market,” Jollie said.
“If they remain suspended for a while, it becomes a lot more important in changing the balance of the market and changing investor risk perceptions as well,” Jollie added.
South Africa produces about 80 percent of the world's platinum. The strike at the operations of Lonmin have removed close to 60,000 ounces of supply from the market in a month.
This follows a loss of 120,000 ounces at number two producer Impala after a bloody six-week strike shuttered its flagship Rustenburg mine in January and February this year.
Platinum is used in jewellery and China is the largest consumer of the metal in this sector, but its main industrial application is in catalytic converters to clean noxious exhaust fumes from vehicle engines.
The European car industry is the world's leading industrial consumer of platinum for use in diesel engine autocatalysts and the euro zone debt crisis has prompted governments to unleash austerity measures that have plunged the region into recession.
Even with platinum supply falling due to unrest in South Africa, the declines were unlikely to be large enough to erode a surplus this year which could be anywhere up to 400,000 ounces in size, or 7 percent of total net demand in 2011.
Gold eased back from session highs, having gained as much as 0.8 percent on the day earlier to touch an intraday peak of $1,746.20 an ounce, its highest since Feb. 29 and just 2 percent below the high for this year.
Spot gold was flat at $1,731.04 an ounce at 16:25 SA time, while gold in euros fell 0.3 percent to 1,343.21 euros an ounce, from the day's high of 1,355.01 euros, after the single European currency surrendered some gains.
The focus for the gold market is squarely on the outcome of the Fed's meeting on Thursday at which it is expected to leave benchmark rates unchanged at 0.25 percent and potentially unveil fresh steps to encourage economic growth.
“Gold should continue fluctuating just below current highs, still trading against the US currency,” Andrey Kryuchenkov, an analyst at VTB Capital, said.
“Our target levels are unchanged and we still have tentative resistance near $1,740; our key short-term resistance is at $1,750. On the downside, the market is supported at $1,690 and the current short-term uptrend,” he said.
Palladium rose 1.6 percent on the day to $676.47 an ounce, near its highest since early May, while silver reversed course and fell 1 percent to $33.16 an ounce, having risen earlier by as much as 1.8 percent. - Reuters