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US: Wall Street inches higher as Dec 15 tariff deadline looms

[NEW YORK] Wall Street eked out slight gains on Thursday as investors waited for concrete news on a hoped-for interim trade deal between the United States and China before a new round of tariffs scheduled to kick in on Dec 15.

Tech stocks led all three major US stock averages marginally into the black following upbeat statements from President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that the US-China trade negotiations are "on track" and "going well".

Markets have been whipsawed in recent days by conflicting reports on whether the world's two largest economies would be able to arrive at a "phase one" agreement prior to Dec 15, when a new round of tariffs on Chinese imports is expected to take effect.

"Investors are trying to calibrate things," said Matthew Keator, managing partner in the Keator Group, a wealth management firm in Lenox, Massachusetts. "The markets are going to toggle up and down until we see what happens on Dec 15th to get some sort of clarity in terms of how to move forward in the near term."

Market participants appeared to shrug off the drama unfolding in Washington as the US House of Representatives prepared to draft articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.

"The market has become desensitised a bit to the partisanship that's been going on," said Mr Keator, while adding that "uncertainty is not something the market enjoys".

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 28.01 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 27,677.79, the S&P 500 gained 4.67 points, or 0.15 per cent, to 3,117.43 and the Nasdaq Composite added 4.03 points, or 0.05 per cent, to 8,570.70.

Of the 11 major sectors in the S&P 500, eight closed higher.

Materials stocks were the biggest winners, while energy suffered the largest percentage drop.

Nike Inc gained 2.2 per cent following Goldman Sachs' upgrade of the sportswear maker's stock to "buy" from "neutral".

Kroger Co shares fell 3 per cent after the supermarket chain missed Wall Street earnings estimates, hurt by stiff competition from Walmart Inc and Inc.

Online craft retailer Etsy dipped 2.5 per cent on a downgrade to "underweight" by Morgan Stanley.

SecureWorks Corp jumped 29.4 per cent, its best day ever, after the cyber security firm posted a surprise third-quarter profit.

Sage Therapeutics Inc tumbled 59.7 per cent after its depression drug failed in a late-stage study.

Economic data showed a shrinking trade deficit, a drop in jobless claims and a rebound in factory orders, suggesting a still-robust, if slowing, US economy.

Investors now look to Friday's employment report from the US Labor Department, which is expected to show nonfarm payrolls increased by 180,000 in November.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 1.15-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.00-to-1 ratio favoured decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 14 new 52-week highs and three new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 54 new highs and 64 new lows.

Volume on US exchanges was 6.42 billion shares, compared with the 6.71 billion average over the last 20 trading days.