London - Copper was little changed on Tuesday as uncertainty over whether the US Federal Reserve will trim its stimulus programme kept investors cautious even as upbeat economic data from top metal consumer China brightened the demand outlook for base metals.

Three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange (LME) fell 0.38 percent to $7,170 a tonne by 11:34 SA time.

Loose monetary policy adopted by central banks in the last few years has drawn investors to commodities as an alternative to interest-bearing assets.

Investors are, however, now weighing the possibility that the US Federal Reserve might soon start to reduce its stimulus programme following signals the world's largest economy is recovering.

Fed officials will meet on September 17-18.

“We had decent industrial production data from China today and trade data this week but the market is turning its attention to the Fed meeting later this month,” said VTB Capital analyst Andrey Kryuchenkov.

“There is uncertainly over what the Fed will do. It is likely they will gradually reduce the stimulus and that would be negative for metals.”

Copper has risen more than 8 percent since touching three-year lows in June on mounting evidence that a slowdown in China may be bottoming out but is still almost 10 percent down on the year.

Data from China this week signalled its economy is improving and lifted metals prices on Monday.

The data at the weekend showed China's exports rose by a forecast-beating 7.2 percent in August from a year earlier.

China's annual industrial output rose 10.4 percent in August, beating market expectations, while retail sales rose 13.4 percent, official data showed on Tuesday.

China makes up for about 40 percent of copper consumption.

“A lot of the China data has been quite strong so it is a bit disappointing that copper hasn't benefited more from that,” said analyst Daniel Smith at Standard Chartered in London.

“People are reluctant to push prices higher because there is more supply coming on stream and there is uncertainty over what the Fed will do at the next meeting.”

Standard Chartered sees the copper market balanced for the next six months and moving into a surplus thereafter. - Reuters