Stocks struggle to a mixed finish after early rally sputters

The major U.S. stock indexes closed unevenly Thursday after an early rally gave way to a mostly sideways day of trading on Wall Street.

Losses in health care stocks mostly offset gains in industrial companies, banks and elsewhere in the market. Insurers UnitedHealth Group and Anthem led the sector’s slide. Technology stocks also fell.

The listless day of trading came as investors looked ahead to Friday, when major banks, including Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, are due to report their first-quarter results. The banks will pave the way for a potentially market-moving wave of company earnings reports the next few weeks.

“For the better part here of five trading days we’ve been up and down just a little bit, and not really making any progress,” said Rob Haworth, senior investment strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. “A lot of that is you’re really waiting for earnings season.”

The S&P 500 index eked out a tiny gain, adding 0.11 points, or less than 0.1%, to 2,888.32.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 14.11 points, or 0.1%, to 26,143.05. The Nasdaq composite slid 16.88 points, or 0.2%, to 7,947.36. The Russell 2000 gave up 2.41 points, or 0.2%, to 1,579.14.

More stocks rose than fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Major European indexes closed mostly higher.

Stocks initially moved modestly higher as investors welcomed an encouraging report from the Labor Department, which said applications for unemployment aid declined last week to 196,000, the lowest level since October 1969.

By midmorning, the major stock indexes turned slightly lower, however, and then held steady for much of the day before a late-afternoon flurry of buying left the S&P 500 with a minuscule gain. The index is up 15.2% for the year.

The stock indexes’ mixed performance Thursday means the market gave back some

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