(Updates with early afternoon U.S. trading)
* Oil falls more than 3% in sixth straight down day
* Wall Street mixed; defensives, tech higher
* U.S. dollar hits nine-month high
WASHINGTON, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Stocks were mixed on Thursday while oil hit lows not seen since May as investors juggled ongoing concern about rising coronavirus cases and the prospect of the Federal Reserve easing back on stimulus later this year.
Major stock indices were mixed around midday after two straight losing sessions, a rarity for a persistent bull market that posted fresh record highs just last week.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 0.18%, while the S&P 500 gained 0.15% and the Nasdaq Composite added 0.35%. Growth-sensitive sectors underperformed amid concerns about global economic growth, while defensive sectors and technology stocks led gains.
The MSCI world equity index, which tracks shares in 45 nations, fell 0.66%.
The murky picture comes after minutes from the Federal Reserve’s July meeting published on Wednesday showed officials expected they could ease stimulus this year, even though there was division over the U.S. jobs market recovery and the economic impact of spreading coronavirus cases.
The minutes solidified expectations the Fed will step back on stimulus before year’s end barring some unpleasant economic surprise. Bank of America Securities analysts moved up their window for a taper start to November from January following the minutes.
“Any decision to begin tapering asset purchases will be highly conditional on the data flow. With the recent rise in COVID cases, the Fed will be monitoring the incoming data closely to make sure that the economy continues to make ‘substantial further progress’ toward its dual mandate (especially on employment) before announcing any changes to its asset purchase program,” the analysts said in a note.
The Labor Department reported on Thursday that the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell to a 17-month low last week. But gains in the job market also help nudge the Fed toward exiting an unprecedented stimulus effort that has driven stocks to all-time highs.
The focus now shifts to the Fed’s annual research conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, next week where central bankers from around the globe gather and Fed Chair Jerome Powell is due to give a speech that will be scoured for clues on the central bank’s next steps.
The downward trend for oil continued on Thursday as the commodity was down for its sixth session in a row on concern about weakened travel demand as COVID-19 cases rise. A stronger dollar, on expectations that the Fed backs off its stimulus, further weighed on the sector.
“There’s concern that the Fed will begin tapering, resulting in a stronger dollar and weaker crude prices,” said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates in Houston.
Brent crude was last down 3.25% at $66.01 a barrel. U.S. crude was last down 3.35% at $63.27 per barrel.
Six straight days of declines make the longest losing streak for oil since February 2020.
The dollar surged to its highest level since November, buoyed by its safe-haven status and the prospect of dwindling Fed stimulus, which could drive up U.S. government bond yields and drive investors to dollar-denominated assets.
The dollar index, which tracks the greenback versus a basket of six currencies, rose 0.37%, to 93.48.
The stronger dollar pushed gold prices down, with spot gold falling 0.32% to $1,781.90 an ounce. Gold futures were last up slightly to $1784.8 an ounce.
U.S. Treasury yields were down on reduced risk appetite in other sectors. Benchmark 10-year yields US10YT=RR dipped to 1.243%.
Reporting by Pete Schroeder in Washington, additional reporting by Alun John in Hong Kong; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Nick Zieminski and Dan Grebler