January 23, 2020 / 7:31 PM / in 2 months

US STOCKS-Wall Street pares losses on positive coronavirus news

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* WHO says ‘too early’ to declare virus an emergency

* Gilead explores Ebola drug as possible coronavirus treatment

* Travelers, Comcast sink after results

* Indexes: Dow down 0.18%, S&P off 0.03%, Nasdaq up 0.09% (Updates to late afternoon, changes dateline, byline)

By Stephen Culp

NEW YORK, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Wall Street struggled for direction on Thursday as investors digested mixed earnings and developing news about the coronavirus outbreak emanating from China.

Healthcare and financial shares helped pull stocks into the red through much of the session.

But news that Gilead Sciences Inc was assessing its experimental Ebola drug as a possible treatment for the virus helped stocks pare their losses, and pushed the Nasdaq into positive territory.

Health officials in China put millions of people on lockdown in efforts to contain a coronavirus outbreak that has so far claimed 18 lives, but the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it was “a bit too early” to declare the virus a global health emergency.

“It feels like the coronavirus story is a convenient excuse to take a little profit, sit back and reassess,” David Lafferty, chief market strategist at Nataxis Investment Managers in Boston. “The indexes have become so over bought it feels like it needed a little bit of a breather and I think that’s what the coronavirus (sell-off) is really about.”

The outbreak has strained global equity markets, just as millions of Chinese are preparing to travel ahead of the Lunar New Year.

Additionally, a spate of earnings reports, while beating Street estimates in many cases, have failed to impress investors.

“The market is pricing a real turn in earnings for 2020,” Lafferty added. “If you tell me that companies are meeting estimates and the guidance is still positive it tells me that expectations were higher than people thought.”

Fourth-quarter reporting season gathers steam, with 74 companies in the S&P 500 having reported. Of those, 67.6% have beat consensus expectations, according to Refinitiv data.

Analysts now see fourth-quarter earnings contracting by 0.7% from a year ago.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 51.28 points, or 0.18%, to 29,134.99, the S&P 500 lost 0.93 points, or 0.03%, to 3,320.82 and the Nasdaq Composite added 8.26 points, or 0.09%, to 9,392.03.

Of the 11 major sectors in the S&P 500, six were trading in the red. Healthcare was the biggest percentage loser, while industrials enjoyed the largest gain.

Procter & Gamble Co results fell short of analyst expectations for the first time in five quarters, sending the consumer products company’s stock down 1.0%.

Insurance bellwether Travelers Cos Inc reported better-than-expected quarterly profit, with underwriting gains tripling and catastrophe losses falling. Nevertheless, the company’s shares were down 5.3%, and were the biggest drag on the blue-chip Dow.

Comcast Corp beat Street estimates but lost more subscribers than analysts expected, sending its shares down 3.6%.

Freeport McMoRan results also came in above expectations, but investors focused on the mining company’s drop in Indonesia production. Its stock fell 5.6%.

Among winners, Union Pacific Corp gained 3.1% after the rail operator said the Phase 1 U.S.-China trade pact should reverse slumping volumes.

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

The S&P 500 posted 45 new 52-week highs and 4 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 80 new highs and 42 new lows.

Reporting by Stephen Culp

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