* Retail sales post biggest gain in 1-1/2 yrs in March
* Honeywell gains after quarterly profit beat
* Healthcare continues to skid for 3rd session
* Industrials provide biggest boost to markets
* S&P off 0.06%, Nasdaq down 0.29%; Dow up 0.19% (Changes comment, updates prices)
By Amy Caren Daniel
April 18 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks dipped in volatile trading on Thursday, ahead of a long Easter weekend, as another drop in healthcare stocks overshadowed gains from industrials after upbeat earnings.
In a bright spot, U.S. retail sales increased by the most in 1-1/2 years in March, while a labor department report showed the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits dropped to its lowest in nearly 50 years last week, further underscoring the economy’s strength.
Stocks have rallied from a slump late-last year, putting the benchmark S&P 500 index about 1 percent away from its closing record high hit in September.
“We have had a big run-up here on the belief that economic data would improve and it has come to fruition,” said Brent Schutte, chief investment strategist at Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Co in Milwaukee.
“The political narrative has stolen the thunder from economic data, which came in pretty strong. The markets are fixated on the Mueller report and the testimony that came from the Attorney General.”
Markets were assessing Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, providing details about a 22-month inquiry that cast a shadow over Donald Trump’s presidency.
Just before the report was released, U.S. Attorney General William Barr offered a spirited defense of Trump.
Providing the biggest support to markets was a 0.8% rise in industrial stocks, but the gains were more than offset by the healthcare sector falling for the third straight session as concerns of tighter regulations mount.
Union Pacific Corp jumped 4.2%, while Honeywell International Inc’s shares rose 3.1% after the industrial companies reported better-than-expected quarterly profits.
At 10:58 a.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 49.86 points, or 0.19%, at 26,499.40. The S&P 500 was down 1.82 points, or 0.06%, at 2,898.63 and the Nasdaq Composite was down 22.94 points, or 0.29%, at 7,973.15.
Of the 77 S&P 500 companies that have posted earnings so far, about 78% have beaten estimates, according to Refinitiv data.
Analysts now expect first-quarter profits for S&P 500 companies to have dropped 1.7% year-on-year, an improvement from recent estimates, but still the first earnings contraction since 2016.
Insurer Travelers Cos Inc’s rose 2.6%, providing the biggest boost to the Dow, after its quarterly profit beat estimates.
Investors are also awaiting the hotly-anticipated debut of online scrapbook company Pinterest Inc, the first high-profile initial public offering of a “tech unicorn” after Lyft Inc’s struggles.
Declining issues outnumbered advancers for a 1.51-to-1 ratio on the NYSE and for a 1.79-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.
The S&P index recorded 27 new 52-week highs and two new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 30 new highs and 55 new lows. (Reporting by Amy Caren Daniel and Sruthi Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)