* GRAPHIC-2019 asset returns: tmsnrt.rs/2jvdmXl (Adds closing prices, Zinc stocks)
By Zandi Shabalala
LONDON, April 1 (Reuters) - Nickel prices ended higher on Monday after positive factory data from top steel producer China raised hopes for higher demand, while inventories fell.
Factory activity in China unexpectedly grew for the first time in four months in March, an official survey showed on Sunday, suggesting government stimulus measures may be starting to take hold in the world's second-largest economy.
Benchmark nickel rose 0.7 percent to $13,130 per tonne, having touching its highest since March 21 at $13,335.
"(The rise) seems to be because of the improved PMI numbers over the weekend," said Macquarie base metals strategist Vivienne Lloyd.
She said the Purchasing Managers' Index figures the previous month were exaggeratedly weak because of the timing of the release and that Macquarie had expected better results in March.
STOCKS: On-warrant stocks of nickel available to the market in LME-approved warehouses MNISTX-TOTAL are at 114,738 tonnes, their lowest since 2012 and down 11 percent so far this year.
Inventories in warehouses monitored by the Shanghai Futures Exchange stood at 8,718 tonnes, having halved since the middle of November. SNI-TOTAL-W
But cash nickel on the LME is trading at a discount of nearly $90 to the three-month contract, indicating stock levels remain high.
"Stocks have been drawing for a while but the absolute levels are still too high, especially when you compare it to the other metals," Macquarie's Lloyd said.
NICKEL DEFICIT: Macquarie expects a deficit of 58,000 tonnes in the nickel market this year, compared to a shortage of 243,000 tonnes in 2018.
Global nickel demand is estimated at 2.4 million tonnes this year, the International Nickel Study Group said. Of that, about two-thirds is destined for mostly Chinese stainless steel mills.
SMELTERS: Japanese copper smelter Mitsubishi Materials expects to raise refined output by 1.4 percent between April-September while its larger rival Sumitomo Metals forecast output of 420,000 tonnes in the 2019/20 financial year, 7.7 percent lower than a year earlier.
RUSAL: Russian aluminium giant Rusal has resumed supplies to the U.S. market and aims to win back customers it lost due to sanctions by about September when the industry seals supply contracts for 2020, its chief executive said.
ZINC TIGHT: Headline stocks of zinc MZNSTX-TOTAL fell to 51,275 tonnes, the lowest since at least 1998, keeping the premium of the cash zinc over the three-month contract at a lofty $62.50.
Zinc ended 0.3 percent higher at $2,933 per tonne, having touched its highest since June at $2,958.
PRICES: LME copper gained 0.2 percent to $6,471 per tonne, aluminium fell 0.7 percent to $1,900, lead ended 0.2 percent higher at $2,021 while tin inched 0.4 percent higher to $21,475.
Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen in SINGAPORE; Editing by Dale Hudson/David Evans