* Defensive plays lead gains among major sectors
* Auto stocks worst performers in the region
* German GDP growth at weakest since 2013, stocks down (Updates to close, adds comments)
By Ambar Warrick
Jan 15 (Reuters) - European shares ended flat on Wednesday as investors held back from making any big bets ahead of the signing of a Phase 1 trade deal between the United States and China.
The pan-European STOXX 600 index closed 0.01% higher after remaining range-bound for most of the day.
Defensive plays led gains, with the utilities, healthcare and food & beverage sectors outperforming.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He will sign an initial trade deal on Wednesday that will roll back some tariffs and see China boost purchases of U.S. goods and services.
The pact is expected to help defuse an 18-month conflict between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies. The fine print on the deal is yet to be published.
“Clearly markets are waiting for the details of the Phase 1 deal,” said Teeuwe Mevissen, senior market economist at Rabobank.
“Indeed, if you look at markets right now, they are really taking a wait-and-see approach. Looking ahead, the focus will slowly shift towards trade relations between the U.S. and the EU.”
Talks between EU and U.S. trade representatives in Washington this week will be in the spotlight, given the strained relations between the two over U.S. tariffs and aircraft subsidy disputes.
Dutch semiconductor supplier ASM International jumped 8.6%, to the top of the STOXX 600, hitting a record high after it reported a strong fourth-quarter order intake.
Automobile stocks were the worst performers in the euro zone, shedding 1.7%.
German car parts maker Hella GMBH extended losses to a second session after it posted lower first-half earnings and warned that a strong market recovery was unlikely.
Germany’s main stock index fell about 0.2% after the EU’s biggest economy marked a GDP growth of 0.6% in 2019, the weakest expansion rate since 2013. (Reporting by Ambar Warrick and Shreyashi Sanyal in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Gareth Jones)