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MIDDAY MARKETS: Techs up on earnings

Earnings helped techs defy interest rate fears at midday Wednesday, though the broader markets declined as higher-than-expected housing starts heightened fears the Fed may raise rates next month. The Nasdaq rose 18.50 to 4,439.27, while the Dow Jones industrial average shed 46.54 to 10,671.55.

The Inter@ctive Week @Net Index gained 3 to 597.61.

Though interest rate jitters pressured the broader markets ahead of the Thursday's key inflation reports and testimony from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, techs eked out gains again.

Stronger-than-expected housing data sparked nervousness over rising interest rates. Data from the Commerce Department showed U.S. housing starts rose 1.5 percent to an annual rate of 1.78 million in January. Analysts had expected starts to fall to an annual rate of 1.65 million.

LendingTree Inc. (Nasdaq: TREE), which connects consumers with lenders on the Web, defied the fear of higher rates, and grew 5 3/4 to 17 3/4, or 48 percent in its IPO.

Internet healthcare giant Healtheon/WebMD Corp. (Nasdaq: HLTH) lost 1 5/8 after it snapped up another competitor Wednesday with its purchase of OnHealth Network Company.(Nasdaq: ONHN). OnHealth shares were up 1 11/32 to 11 5/16.

On the earnings front, Metricom (Nasdaq: MCOM) rose 9/16 to 96 13/16 though is reported a whopping fourth-quarter loss of $2.51 a share as it continued to bleed red ink due to the roll-out of its Ricochet product for wireless Internet connections.

Fueled by demand for communications processors, Analog Devices (NYSE: ADI) topped Wall Street estimates by a nickel in the first quarter, issued a bullish outlook and announced a 2-for-1 stock split. Shares rose 4 to 123 7/8.

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) was down 5/8 to 111 3/8 and chip equipment maker Applied Materials (Nasdaq: AMAT) rallied 6 5/16 to 172 13/16 on strong results and a stock split.

Be Free (Nasdaq: BFRE) gained 8 3/4 to 116 7/8 after it announced plans to buy TriVida for 1.56 million of its shares. The company also topped estimates in the fourth quarter and announced a 2-for-1 stock split.

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HWP) was up 4 1/8 to 128 7/8 ahead of its earnings report and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) lost 3/8 to 98 3/16.

Web search system Ask Jeeves Inc. (Nasdaq: ASKJ) lost 3 3/16 after it said it has filed with regulators for a proposed offering of $150 million of its common stock. Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) fell 2 7/16 to 71 3/8, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) lost 3 5/16 to 166 11/16, and America Online Inc. (NYSE: AOL) lost 2 3/8 to 51 5/8.