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Sterling struggles near 2-1/2 year low, UK data in focus


* Sterling stays near more than 2-1/2 year low against dollar

* Sterling to stay weak on economic concerns, QE bets

* Investors wary of sterling before UK budget on March 20

* Industrial, manufacturing, trade data at 0930 GMT

LONDON, March 12 (Reuters) - Sterling struggled near a 2-1/2 year low against the dollar on Tuesday as investors and speculators refrained from buying the British currency which stayed vulnerable to poor economic data.

The pound could see further losses after January industrial and manufacturing figures due at 0930 GMT. These are expected to show little or no monthly growth and will add to worries Britain could stumble into its third recession since 2008.

Analysts said trade data at 0930 GMT will also be in focus as it will provide clues to whether the weak British currency is actually helping exporters and in rebalancing the economy.

"Data this morning will be important. Anything to the downside provides further rationale for selling sterling ... the market doesn't seem to need that much of an excuse to do so," said Neil Mellor, currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon.

Speculation the Bank of England could print more money to support the faltering economy also weighed on sterling. Britain's situation stood in contrast to that of the U.S. economy, where a string of better data bolstered talk the Federal Reserve may scale back its asset purchase programme later this year.

Hedge funds and long-term investors were cited as main sellers of the pound on any upticks. The pound is likely to suffer in coming days and could ease towards $1.47, traders said.

Sterling was down 0.1 percent against the dollar at $1.4900, not far from $1.4866, its lowest since mid-2010, hit on Monday. Bids around the $1.48 level are likely to check losses for now.

The pound has been one of the worst performing major currencies in 2013, falling 8.3 percent against the dollar and more than 7 percent against the euro. Its latest losses kept the trade-weighted sterling index near a 20-month low of 78.10 first struck on Feb. 25, data from the BoE showed.

The spreads between two-year U.S. government bonds yields and their British counterparts are moving in favour of U.S. debt, underpinning dollar demand.

Strategists also said minutes from the central bank's Monetary Policy Committee on the likelihood of further asset purchases, the UK budget on March 20 and data releases were not likely to provide any support for sterling just yet.

"While there is scope for a short-covering rally, there is still little reason to expect a proper reversal of sterling-negative sentiment ahead of the budget and Monetary Policy Committee minutes on March 20," analysts at Lloyds said in a note.

Markets were likely to remain wary of sterling ahead of the budget. Speculation is mounting that Chancellor George Osborne may announce a review of the Bank of England's remit and give it more leeway on inflation targeting.

The euro was 0.2 percent lower against the pound at 87.32 pence, as the single currency was dragged down by lingering concerns about Italy.

Analysts said investors will prefer expressing a bearish view on the British economy by selling sterling against the dollar rather than the euro given that the U.S. economic outlook has been more upbeat than the that of the euro zone.