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US STOCKS-Wall St climbs as earnings gather pace; AmEx boosts Dow

* Apple up after Morgan Stanley, Stifel raise PTs

* Investors eye first round of French election this Sunday

* Indexes up: Dow 0.81 pct, S&P 0.71 pct, Nasdaq 0.86 pct (Updates to open)

By Tanya Agrawal

April 20 U.S. stocks were higher in early afternoon trading on Thursday, with gains in American Express keeping the Dow Jones Industrial Average largely on track to snap a two-day losing streak.

The credit card company was up 5.5 percent after reporting a smaller-than-expected drop in quarterly profit on Wednesday.

Apple rose 1.5 percent after Morgan Stanley and Stifel raised their price targets on the stock, helping lift both the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq.

"As we see a steady stream of earnings, on balance the season has been better and that's helping the market today," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities in New York.

With Wall Street near record levels and worries over President Donald Trump's ability to deliver on his pro-growth promises, investors are hoping first-quarter earnings will be strong enough to justify lofty market valuations.

Of the 82 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings through Thursday afternoon, about 75 percent have topped expectations, according to Thomson Reuters data, above the 71 percent average for the past four quarters.

Overall, profits of S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 11.1 percent in the quarter, the best since 2011.

However, mounting tensions between North Korea and the United States and the looming French presidential elections continued to weigh on investors' minds.

"Investors are definitely nervous about the upcoming French elections and the situation in North Korea and Syria. Friday should be a risk-off trading day ahead of the election," Hogan said.

A closely watched poll showed Centrist Emmanuel Macron hung on to his lead as favorite to win France's presidential election in a four-way race that is too close to call.

Oil prices were little changed in a seesaw trading session, as investors weighed rising U.S. production against comments from leading Gulf oil producers that an extension to OPEC-led supply cuts was likely.

Oil majors Chevron and Exxon were up about 1.3 percent.

At 12:36 p.m. ET (1636 GMT) the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 164.63 points, or 0.81 percent, at 20,569.12 and the S&P 500 was up 16.66 points, or 0.71 percent, at 2,354.83. The Nasdaq Composite was up 50.18 points, or 0.86 percent, at 5,913.21.

Seven of the 11 major S&P sectors were higher, with the industrials index's 1.2 percent rise leading the advancers, helped by gains in CSX Corp.

The stock jumped 6.7 percent to $50.11 after the No. 3 U.S. railroad operator's quarterly profit beat estimates. The stock was among the biggest boosts to the S&P.

Philip Morris fell 3.8 percent to $109.53 after the tobacco maker's first-quarter profit forecast fell below estimates.

Key companies scheduled to report results on Thursday include Dow component Visa and toymaker Mattel.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 2,007 to 787. On the Nasdaq, 2,060 issues rose and 704 fell.

The S&P 500 index showed 30 new 52-week highs and one new low, while the Nasdaq recorded 88 new highs and 25 new lows. (Reporting by Tanya Agrawal; Editing by Anil D'Silva)

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