By Manolo Serapio Jr
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Gold dropped to near its lowest in more than four months on Wednesday, reflecting caution ahead of the conclusion of a Federal Reserve meeting that may stoke expectations for a mid-year hike in U.S. interest rates.
Many expect the Fed officials, who started a two-day policy meeting on Tuesday, to drop the word "patient" from their forward guidance on interest rates, potentially paving the way for a rate hike around June, the first since 2006.
But HSBC said upcoming U.S. inflation data may not be strong enough to prompt a rate hike in June, and policymakers could wait until September before taking any action.
"The removal of the word "patient" from the FOMC's (Federal Open Market Committee) guidance may initially pressure gold prices, especially if it helps to further boost the dollar," HSBC analyst James Steel told clients in a note.
"That said, if a rate rise does not occur in June or if inflation data does not move up to the 2 percent target level, then investor sentiment toward gold may change for the positive and prices may trade higher."
Spot gold was off 0.2 percent at $1,146.20 an ounce by 0729 GMT, a tad above Tuesday's trough of $1,142.86 - its lowest since Nov. 7.
Gold, a non-interest yielding asset, has dropped 3 percent this year on expectations for a U.S. rate hike.
U.S. gold for April delivery edged down 0.2 percent to $1,145.40 an ounce.
While the U.S. economy has been strengthening as evidenced by a firming labour market, the housing sector remained weak, suggesting the Fed is unlikely to engage in an aggressive hiking cycle after an initial rate increase.
Data on Tuesday showed U.S. housing starts plunged to their lowest level in a year in February.
SPDR Gold Trust, the world's largest gold-backed exchange-traded fund, said its holdings dropped 0.4 percent to 747.98 tonnes on Tuesday.
(Editing by Himani Sarkar)