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US stocks rise after signing of 'Phase 1' trade deal

Stocks rose in afternoon trading on Wall Street Wednesday after the signing of an initial trade deal between the U.S. and China.

President Donald Trump and China’s chief negotiator, Liu He, signed the “Phase 1″ deal before a group of corporate executives and press at the White House. The pact eases some sanctions on China. In return, Beijing has agreed to step up its purchases of U.S. farm products and other goods. The initial agreement is a key step toward de-escalating an 18-month long trade conflict between the world’s largest economies.

Both nations will have to deal with some of the more contentious trade issues as they move ahead with negotiations. Punitive tariffs will remain on Chinese goods as talks continue.

Health care stocks accounted for much of the market’s gains. Several health insurers rose as investors cheered a solid fourth-quarter earnings report from UnitedHealth Group.

Technology companies also climbed. The sector is reliant on China for sales and supply chains and benefits from better trade relations. Microsoft rose 0.8% and Advanced Micro Devices gained 0.9%.

Banks were broadly lower after Bank of America reported weaker profits. Energy stocks also fell along with the price of crude oil.

With the trade issue entering a new stage, Wall Street is focusing on the rollout of corporate earnings reports over the next few weeks.

KEEPING SCORE: The S&P 500 index was up 0.2% as of 1:11 p.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 92 points, or 0.3%, to 29,031. If the gains hold, the Dow would have its first close above 29,000 points. The Nasdaq rose 0.2%. The Russell 2000 index of smaller company stocks rose 0.4%.

Markets in Europe were mostly lower.

ANALYST’S TAKE: Trade fears have largely subsided and investors are focusing on corporate earnings, especially the picture executives provide for the rest of the year.

“If we hear a better tone this earnings season, more confidence in guidance, that could encourage investors,” said Jeffrey Kleintop, chief global investment strategist at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. “That might even outweigh what the trade deal actually looks like.”

OFF THE MARK: Target slumped 7.4% after a disappointing holiday shopping season prompted the retailer to cut its forecast for a key sales measure in the fourth quarter. The company said weak sales of electronics, toys and home goods crimped sales growth to just 1.4% in November and December.

WANING INTEREST: Bank of America fell 2.1% after reporting a drop in fourth-quarter profits because of the rapid decline of interest rates in late 2019. The bank is particularly impacted by movements in interest rates since it sells a range of consumer banking services, and its balance sheet is more aligned with short-term bonds and other securities.

HEALTHIER RESULTS: UnitedHealth Group rose 3.1% after the nation’s largest health insurer reported surprisingly good fourth-quarter profits. The company covers more than 49 million people and its revenue rose 4% on a mix of insurance premiums and growth from urgent care and surgery centres.

Other health insurers also moved higher. Anthem gained 2.1%, Cigna rose 1.8% and Humana climbed 2.6%.

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AP Business Writer Damian J. Troise contributed.

Alex Veiga, The Associated Press