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Healthcare drags on Wall Street as investors eye bank earnings

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Healthcare stocks pulled Wall Street lower on Thursday as growing fears of a global economic slowdown countered upbeat economic data and investors waited for earnings season to kick into high gear.

After struggling for direction earlier in the session, all three major U.S. stock indexes had dipped into the red by midday.

Paul Nolte, portfolio manager at Kingsview Asset Management in Chicago, said investors are in wait-and-see mode.

“We’ve had this very large rally without much of a breather since Christmas,” Nolte said. “And now we’re waiting for confirmation from the economic data or from earnings that the rally we’ve seen is justified.”

On the economic data side, initial jobless claims dropped last week to their lowest level since 1969, while in March, producer prices made their biggest gain since October, according to separate reports from the U.S. Labor Department.

The labor market’s strength and the uptick in inflation could ease worries of a sharp global economic downturn reaching U.S. shores, a concern reflected in minutes from the Federal Reserve’s March meeting released on Wednesday.

As reporting season gets underway, analysts expect S&P 500 first-quarter profits to have dropped 2.5% from a year ago, their first contraction since 2016.

Financial stocks were up 0.6% ahead of a string of earnings reports from six major U.S. banks. JPMorgan Chase & Co and Wells Fargo & Co are due to report on Friday, followed by Citigroup Inc and Goldman Sachs Inc on Monday and Bank of America Corp and Morgan Stanley on Tuesday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 74.29 points, or 0.28%, to 26,082.87, the S&P 500 lost 4.38 points, or 0.15%, to 2,883.83 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 23.34 points, or 0.29%, to 7,940.90.

Of the 11 major sectors of the S&P 500, seven were trading lower.

Healthcare stocks were by far the biggest drag on the benchmark index, falling 1.6 a day after U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a “Medicare for All” plan to Congress, and the Senate Finance committee concluded a hearing to discuss the role pharmacy benefit managers play in drug pricing.

UnitedHealth Group Inc weighed heaviest on the Dow, dropping 4.8%.

US Steel Corp dropped after Bank of America Merrill Lynch cut its rating on the stock to “underperform.” Its shares were down 2.8%, while peers AK Steel Holding Corp and Steel Dynamics Inc dropped 7.8% and 3.0%, respectively.

Home furnishings retailer Bed Bath & Beyond fell 9.0% as its bleak first-quarter profits raised doubts about its turnaround plan.

Shares of Lyft Inc reversed their decline, rising2.7%. Still, the ride-hailing platform is currently trading about 14% below its $72 offer price since its March 29 debut, casting a shadow over rival Uber Technologies impending IPO.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 1.03-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.23-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 28 new 52-week highs and 3 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 59 new highs and 24 new lows.

Reporting by Stephen Culp; Editing by Dan Grebler

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