* North Korea rhetoric drives demand for safe-haven gold
* Healthcare bill weighs on stocks
* Apple biggest drag on S&P, Nasdaq
* Indexes down: Dow 0.14 pct, S&P 0.03 pct, Nasdaq 0.01 pct (Updates to late afternoon, adds commentary, changes byline)
By Sinead Carew
Sept 22 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were down slightly in late afternoon trading on Friday as Apple weighed and investors eyed the progress of a healthcare bill in Washington on top of concerns about North Korea and the upcoming corporate earnings season.
Healthcare stocks were volatile as Republicans sought support for their latest effort to replace President Barack Obama’s law. Insurers regained some ground after Republican Senator John McCain opposed the bill.
The S&P technology sector and the Nasdaq were weighed down by a 1 percent fall in Apple shares as its iPhone 8 launch kicked off in a less lively mood in Asia.
Since technology stocks have been responsible for much of the S&P’s gains so far this year, “it’s hard for the stock market to move up when the leadership isn’t there,” said Jeffrey Kleintop, chief global investment strategist at Charles Schwab in Boston.
“It’s like investors are waiting for something. Maybe they’re waiting to see what earnings are like,” said Kleintop, adding that investors may be worried about warnings ahead of third quarter reports.
Some moved to safe-haven assets, lifting gold from a four-week low, after North Korea said it might test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to destroy the reclusive country.
“It’s a little bit of a risk-off move. We seem to be getting a lot of rhetoric, both from the administration and North Korea, and it would be premature to say there is an end,” said Marcelle Daher, senior managing director, asset allocation at Manulife Asset Management.
At 3:00 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 32.31 points, or 0.14 percent, to 22,326.92, the S&P 500 lost 0.77 points, or 0.03 percent, to 2,499.83 and the Nasdaq Composite added 0.54 points, or 0.01 percent, to 6,423.23.
Seven of the 11 major S&P sectors were lower, with utilities leading the decliners. After falling as much as 0.5 percent, the healthcare sector pared losses and was last down 0.07 percent.
Uncertainty over the healthcare bill took a toll on health insurers with UnitedHealth down 1.6 percent.
The small telecom services index, with only four stocks, was the biggest percentage gainer with a 1.4 percent rise on consolidation speculation while the energy index was up 0.4 percent.
T-Mobile rose 1 percent after Reuters reported the company was close to agreeing tentative terms on a deal to merge with Sprint, whose shares jumped 5 percent.
The report also pushed up bigger rivals Verizon Communications and AT&T Inc, which could benefit from having one less competitor.
Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 1,750 to 1,048. On the Nasdaq, 1,644 issues rose and 1,130 fell. (Additional reporting by Sruthi Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Nick Zieminski)