April 18, 2019 / 5:16 PM / a month ago

US STOCKS-Wall St edges higher on industrial gains; healthcare drags again

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* Retail sales post biggest gain in 1-1/2 yrs in March

* Healthcare skids for 3rd session

* Industrials provide biggest boost

* Indexes up: Dow 0.44%, S&P 0.19%, Nasdaq 0.01% (Changes comment, updates prices)

By Amy Caren Daniel and Sruthi Shankar

April 18 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks eked out gains in volatile trading on Thursday, ahead of a long Easter weekend, as strong results from industrials countered another drop in healthcare stocks, with investors shrugging off release of the Mueller report.

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% 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.

Details of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. election were released during the session and showed a series of incidents in which President Donald Trump took actions to impede the probe that raised questions of whether he committed the crime of obstruction of justice.

Mueller did not make a conclusion on whether Trump had committed obstruction of justice, but did not exonerate him either.

"I don't think there is much of a surprise, we'll see what comes out over the next few days and maybe we'll get more information," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Providing the biggest support to markets was a 1.09% rise in industrial stocks, after a batch of upbeat earnings reports.

Union Pacific Corp jumped 4.6%, while Honeywell International Inc's shares rose 3.4% after better-than-expected quarterly profits.

However, the healthcare sector fell for a third session in a row, now down 0.15%, plagued by ongoing concerns of tighter regulations.

At 12:48 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 116.37 points, or 0.44%, at 26,565.91. The S&P 500 was up 5.65 points, or 0.19%, at 2,906.10 and the Nasdaq Composite was up 0.97 points, or 0.01%, at 7,997.05.

Of the 77 S&P 500 companies that have reported so far, about 78% have beaten earnings 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 rose 2.8%, and helped boost the Dow, after quarterly profit beat estimates.

Online scrapbook company Pinterest Inc surged 25% in debut, signaling increased investor appetite for new tech listings.

U.S. stock markets will be closed on Good Friday.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by a 1.05-to-1 ratio on the NYSE. Declining issues outnumbered advancers for a 1.11-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded 32 new 52-week highs and two new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 36 new highs and 64 new lows. (Reporting by Amy Caren Daniel and Sruthi Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)

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