* Retail sales post biggest gain in 1-1/2 yrs in March
* Honeywell gains after quarterly profit beat
* Dow up 0.17%, S&P off 0.10%, Nasdaq down 0.34% (Updates to open)
By Amy Caren Daniel
April 18 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were flat in volatile trading on Thursday, ahead of a long Easter weekend, as another drop in healthcare stocks blunted gains from upbeat industrial earnings and robust retail sales data.
U.S. retail sales increased by the most in 1-1/2 years in March, the latest indication that economic growth picked up in the first quarter after a false start.
The economy’s strength was underscored by data that showed the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped to its lowest in nearly 50 years last week.
“Retail sales really came back roaring. It looks like the consumer made up for the government shutdown and there were good numbers in jobless claims,” said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Spartan Capital Securities in New York.
Ahead of the release of the report, U.S. Attorney General William Barr emphasized that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry found no collusion between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.
“I think the markets are going to focus on how damaging the Mueller report is going to be for Trump’s re-election chances,” said Rick Meckler, partner at Cherry Lane Investments, in New Vernon, New Jersey.
“But as with everything with Trump, it probably won’t have a big impact long term.”
Providing the biggest support to markets was a 1.1% rise in industrial stocks, but the gains were weighed down by healthcare sector falling for the third straight session as concerns of tighter regulations mount.
Union Pacific Corp jumped 4.3%, while Honeywell International Inc’s shares rose 3.1% after the industrial companies reported better-than-expected quarterly profits.
At 10:11 a.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 43.71 points, or 0.17%, at 26,493.25, the S&P 500 was down 2.90 points, or 0.10%, at 2,897.55 and the Nasdaq Composite was down 26.84 points, or 0.34%, at 7,969.24.
Of the 54 S&P 500 companies that have posted earnings so far, 79.6% have beaten consensus, according to Refinitiv data.
Analysts now expect first-quarter profits for S&P 500 companies to have dropped 1.8% year-on-year, an improvement from recent estimates, but would still be the first earnings decline since 2016.
Insurer Travelers Companies Inc’s rose 3.2%, providing the biggest boost to the Dow, after its quarterly profit beat estimates.
On trade, Washington and Beijing set a tentative timeline for a fresh round of face-to-face meetings ahead of a possible signing ceremony in late May or early June, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
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 1.20-to-1 ratio on the NYSE and a 1.74-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.
The S&P index recorded 26 new 52-week highs and two new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 30 new highs and 32 new lows. (Reporting by Amy Caren Daniel and Sruthi Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)