* Dollar on track for worst day vs yen in nearly a month
* U.S. pending home sales plunge, weigh on dollar
* Investors pare back bets on interest rate increases
* December jobs report key focus this week
(Updates prices, adds details, comment, changes byline)
By Wanfeng Zhou
NEW YORK, Jan 5 (Reuters) - The dollar fell the most against the yen in nearly a month on Tuesday as weaker-than-expected U.S. housing data dampened expectations the U.S. Federal Reserve could hike rates sooner rather than later.
The euro, however, fell from a three-week high versus the dollar in choppy trading. Traders said the pair's inability to break $1.4450 in the New York session prompted some investors to buy back the U.S. currency.
Pending sales of previously-owned U.S. homes fell more than expected in November, data showed on Tuesday. The report weighed on the dollar versus the yen and cast doubt on the view the housing market has stabilized. [ID:nN0548802].
The weaker housing data backed comments by Fed Governor Elizabeth Duke on Monday that there were still strong headwinds in the housing market and the Fed needs to keep interest rates "exceptionally low" for an "extended period." [ID:nN04212241]
"People are having a rethink about buying the dollar purely for reasons of expecting a higher yield," said Andrew Wilkinson, senior analyst at Interactive Brokers Group in Greenwich, Connecticut. "The more they rationalize any rate increase from the Fed and the more they listen to the Fed speakers, the less likely that looks."
In afternoon trading, the dollar <JPY=> fell 1 percent to 91.62 yen, on track for its biggest one-day percentage loss since early December. It fell to 91.26 yen, its lowest in about two weeks, according to Reuters data.
The euro <EUR=> was down 0.4 percent at $1.4359, having climbed to around $1.4483 earlier in the day to hit its strongest since Dec 17.
Traders locked in gains on the dollar's rally over the past month ahead of U.S. jobs data on Friday which could dictate the currency's near term direction.
"Investors have been very short most of the major currencies except the dollar, and I think they're buying them back ahead of the key event risk," said Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York. "There's also some thought that the dollar's year-end move was too far, too fast."
For the December payrolls report, the median forecast of analysts polled by Reuters is for a decline of 8,000, with estimates ranging widely from a loss of 80,000 jobs to a gain of 59,000. [ECI/US]
Some economists think December marked the first month in two years that there were more jobs created than eliminated. Any sign of jobs growth raises expectations the U.S. Federal Reserve will begin to plan interest rate hikes -- a move that would boost the value of dollar-based assets.
U.S. government securities dealers expect the Fed to raise rates by the end of the first quarter of 2011, with the most bullish seeing a hike in the second quarter of this year, according to a Reuters poll last month. See [ID:nNYS007624].
Data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission released on Monday showed an increase in long-dollar positions for a second straight week to Dec. 29. For the fourth week running, the non-commercial position was short euros. [ID:nN04195958]
Some analysts said risk appetite also remains a driver in the currency market and should not be totally disregarded. The theme, however, stayed in the background in December as investors priced in the onset of higher U.S. interest rates in mid-2010 amid upbeat economic data.
The ICE Futures' dollar index <.DXY>, which tracks the dollar's performance against six major currencies, was up 0.2 percent at 77.668. (Additional reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss and Steven C. Johnson; Editing by Andrew Hay)