METALS-Copper falls on signs of slowing U.S. economy

 * U.S. Feb durable goods orders, jobless claims fall
 * Energy costs, demand lift aluminium to highest since '08
 (Updates with U.S. copper futures' price)
 By Sue Thomas and Melanie Burton
 LONDON, March 24 (Reuters) - Copper prices ended lower on Thursday, falling
from almost three-week highs after new orders for U.S. manufactured goods fell
unexpectedly last month, hinting at slowing activity in the world's largest
economy.
 Three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange (CMCU3: Quote, Profile, Research) closed at $9,712 a
tonne from $9,727 at Wednesday's close. Earlier it rose to $9,784, its highest
since early March.
 U.S. copper futures' benchmark contract, May (HGK1: Quote, Profile, Research), settled down 0.4 cent
at $4.4245 a lb.
 "In the last few days, the macro data has been a little disappointing, not
to mention the problems in Portugal," said analyst Dan Smith of Standard
Chartered, referring to the resignation of Portugal's prime minister over
rejection of austerity measures to solve a debt crisis. [ID:nLDE72N0NZ]
 "On the base metals I tend to be fairly neutral at this point ... there's
talk in markets like steel about soft orders from Japan, premiums remain a bit
depressed in copper, so things aren't really in place for an immediate surge
although I am still bullish medium-term," he added.
 The U.S. Commerce Department said durable goods orders fell 0.9 percent
after an upwardly revised 3.6 percent rise in January. Economists polled by
Reuters had expected a 1.1 percent increase after January's rise, which was
initially reported at 2.7 percent. [ID:nN24107359]
 The euro extended gains against the dollar, which helped limit further
losses in base metals prices. A weaker dollar makes metals priced in the U.S.
currency more affordable for holders of other currencies.
 Support also came from data showing U.S. claims for unemployment benefits
fell unexpectedly last week. [ID:nOAT004768] [USD/]
 European premiums for physical copper edged ahead this week, clawing back
from two-year lows as traders said demand was perking up and that gains looked
set to increase in the traditionally stronger second quarter. [ID:nLDE72N1Y8]
 "We could push to a high of $9,850 in this current run, but an advance to
$10,000 and beyond looks problematical to us given rising inventory levels and
sluggish physical premiums," MF Global said in a note.
 Lead (CMPB3: Quote, Profile, Research), which earlier hit a near three-year high at $2,747, ended at
$2,690 versus $2,716 at the prior day's close.
 STILL SUPPORTED
 Aluminium (CMAL3: Quote, Profile, Research) reversed to close lower after hitting $2,651.00, its
highest since September 2008. The metal used in auto parts and packaging
finished at $2,630, from $2,631 at the close on Wednesday.
 The energy-intensive metal remained supported by brisk demand growth and
soaring energy costs.
 "If you look at the demand picture for aluminium, it's incredibly
positive," said Barclays Capital analyst Gayle Berry.
 "And longer-term as well, the question marks over the role of nuclear in
the energy mix are certainly helping the back end of the aluminium curve."
 The nuclear crisis in Japan is seen lifting power costs as governments
rethink energy policies, while conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa
have propelled crude oil to 2-1/2-year peaks.
 Aluminium inventories remain close to record highs, climbing 14,425 tonnes
to 4,608,875 tonnes, data showed on Thursday, although much of the material is
tied up in financing deals.
 Tin (CMSN3: Quote, Profile, Research) finished at $31,750 from a last bid at $30,925, while zinc
(CMZN3: Quote, Profile, Research) closed at $2,421 from $2,424 on Wednesday. Nickel (CMNI3: Quote, Profile, Research) ended at
$27,200 from $26,825 a tonne.
 Metals prices at 2100 GMT:
 Metal            Last      Change  Pct Move   End 2010   Ytd Pct
                                                         move
 COMEX Cu       442.50       -0.35     -0.08     444.70     -0.49
 LME Alum      2629.00       -2.00     -0.08    2470.00      6.44
 LME Cu        9714.00      -13.00     -0.13    9600.00      1.19
 LME Lead      2689.00      -27.00     -0.99    2550.00      5.45
 LME Nickel   27195.00      370.00     +1.38   24750.00      9.88
 LME Tin      31700.00     1550.00     +5.14   26900.00     17.84
 LME Zinc      2419.00       -5.00     -0.21    2454.00     -1.43
 SHFE Alu     16860.00       30.00     +0.18   16840.00      0.12
 SHFE Cu*     72410.00      430.00     +0.60   71850.00      0.78
 SHFE Zin     18580.00      -20.00     -0.11   19475.00     -4.60
** Benchmark month for COMEX copper
* 3rd contract month for SHFE AL, CU and ZN
SHFE ZN began trading on 26/3/07
  (Additional reporting by Barani Krishnan in New York; Editing by Dale
Hudson)


METALS-Copper falls on signs of slowing U.S. economy