NEW YORK/LONDON, March 23 (Reuters) - Copper maintained its steadier tone in late business on Tuesday, garnering support from an upbeat tone in equity markets after marginally better home sales data from the United States offered a glimpse of optimism for the beaten down housing sector.
Copper for May delivery HGK0 on the New York Mercantile Exchange's COMEX division ended down 0.15 cent at $3.3790 per lb.
On the London Metal Exchange, benchmark copper for three-month delivery CMCU3 ended at $7,440 from $7,450 at the close on Monday.
The metal used in power and construction rose to session highs of $7,515 a tonne in London and nearly $3.41 in New York after data showed sales of previously owned U.S. homes fell less than expected in February.
"Month-over-month sales were marginally better," said Tom Schrader, managing director, U.S. equity trading at Stifel Nicolaus Capital Markets in Baltimore. "It says sales flat-lined." David Thurtell, analyst at Citigroup, believed Western demand will now be taking on more of the "locomotive role".
"China's demand will not grow as strongly as last year, but still be strong," he said. "I'm not concerned about tightening -- Beijing is just trying to make sure the recovery is sustainable and doesn't get out of control."
China's refined copper imports in February rose 12 percent on the month to 220,530 tonnes.
Drawdowns in LME inventories in recent weeks have boosted expectations of a pick-up in demand outside China.
Copper stocks at 520,675 tonnes are down more than 30,000 tonnes since March 1. They are the lowest since January 11.
Still, the global refined copper market remained in surplus of 365,000 tonnes in 2009 -- up 63 percent from 2008, data from the International Copper Study Group (ICSG) showed.
Aluminum stocks fell 6,925 tonnes to 4.59 million tonnes. Much of the stock of aluminum, used in transport and packaging, is tied up in finance deals, to release cash for producers and earn banks higher returns than they would get in money markets.
"If we continue to see demand recovering at the pace it is now, outside of China, inventory trends will start to turn positive and that's what is going to create the next leg-up for prices in the second quarter," said Gayle Berry, an analyst at Barclays Capital.
Aluminum CMAL3 closed at $2,256 from $2,255. Stainless steel ingredient nickel CMNI3 ended at $22,495 from $22,275 and battery material lead CMPB3 at $2,104 from $2,165 at Monday's close. Nickel looks set to remain the top performer this year, as tight supply and a demand pick-up boosts prices.
Worries about nickel supplies eased, as latest LME data showed that a dominant position controlling cash warrants on LME stocks had fallen back to between 40-50 percent from between 50-80 percent previously.
However, the discount between the cash and the three-month contract MNI0-3 has halved to $42 a tonne from $84 on March 5.
Zinc CMZN3, used to galvanize steel, was trading at $2,240 a tonne from $2,277 and tin CMSN3 at $17,650 from $17,550. A rise in canceled warrants -- material earmarked for delivery from LME warehouses -- has helped boost sentiment.
On Monday, zinc canceled warrants were at 13,825 tonnes from 4,775 tonnes on February 22. Nickel canceled warrants were at 5,160 tonnes on Monday from 3,606 on February 22.