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The S&P 500 has closed modestly higher following strong earnings from Nvidia and a report late in the session that the White House was considering a tax incentive for Americans to buy stocks.

Uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus epidemic and downbeat economic data had put a damper on investor sentiment for much of the day.

But a CNBC report that the Trump administration could introduce a tax incentive for people earning less than $US200,000 to invest up to $US10,000 in US stocks gave the markets a late boost.

“In an election year, especially when the president is getting backlash that the tax cut benefits only the rich, seeking a way to democratise the stock market to low income earners would be a popular manoeuvre,” said Joseph Sroka, chief investment officer at NovaPoint in Atlanta.

While the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq closed modestly higher, the Dow lost ground.

The three major stock averages headed into the US holiday weekend having posted their second consecutive weekly advances.

The coronavirus, now called Covid-19, has taken 1,380 lives and infected 63,851 people, according to Chinese authorities.

In a recent Reuters survey of 40 economists, the respondents see China’s economy in the current quarter suffering its slowest growth since the financial crisis, but believe the downturn will be short-lived if the outbreak is contained.

“The true economic implications of the coronavirus are still unknown,” Sroka said, adding “at the end of the day, earnings matter more for the sustainability of stocks than near-term headlines.”

Indeed, of the 387 companies in the S&P 500 having reported fourth-quarter results, 77.4 per cent have surprised Wall Street expectations to the upside, according to Refinitiv data.

Analysts now see fourth-quarter earnings rising at an annual pace of 2.6 per cent, a striking reversal of the 0.3 per cent decline seen on Jan 1.

In economic news, lacklustre retail sales and industrial production data appeared to justify the US Federal Reserve’s wait-and-see stance regarding its accommodative monetary policy, reiterated by Fed Chair Jerome Powell earlier this week in Washington.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 25.23 points, or 0.09 per cent, to 29,398.08, the S&P 500 gained 6.22 points, or 0.18 per cent, to 3,380.16 and the Nasdaq Composite added 19.21 points, or 0.2 per cent, to 9,731.18.

Seven of the 11 major sectors in the S&P 500 closed in the black, with defensive real estate and utilities stocks seeing the biggest gains.

Energy shares were the biggest losers.

NVIDIA Corp jumped 7.0 per cent after the chipmaker’s beat-and-raise earnings report, even as it forecast a $100 million hit from the coronavirus.

Online travel services platform Expedia Inc surged 11.0 per cent after the online travel services company forecast strong quarterly core earnings despite uncertainties surrounding the Covid-19 virus.

EBay Inc gained 2.6 per cent after providing better-than-expected current-quarter profit guidance.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 1.11-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.24-to-1 ratio favoured decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 74 new 52-week highs and five new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 130 new highs and 60 new lows.

Volume on US exchanges was 6.60 billion shares, compared with the 7.62 billion average over the last 20 trading days.