* Economic data points to slowdown in U.S. growth
* UnitedHealth profit falls, shares drop
* Verizon, PepsiCo rise after results beat forecasts
* Dow off 0.3 pct, S&P 500 off 0.3 pct, Nasdaq off 0.8 pct
By Rodrigo Campos
NEW YORK, April 18 U.S. stocks fell on Thursday
after data showed signs of slower growth ahead for the U.S.
economy, with traders zoning in on technical factors to
anticipate the market's next move.
The S&P 500 briefly traded below its 50-day moving average
for the first time this year, an indication that the market's
medium-term uptrend could be in peril after this week's strong
The level was also the floor of the trading range during the
last month, making 1,543 a key technical support, according to
Richard Ross, global technical strategist at Auerbach Grayson in
"A close below 1,540 will generate a 'sell' signal as we
transition into this period of weak seasonality," said Ross,
noting that the S&P 500 has posted negative second quarters in
the last three years. "The 50-day is the key."
The Nasdaq 100 and the Russell 2000 indexes
have both closed below their 50-day averages this week, adding
to the overall technical pressure on the market.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 37.11 points or
0.25 percent, to 14,581.48, the S&P 500 lost 4.91 points
or 0.32 percent, to 1,547.1 and the Nasdaq Composite
dropped 24.54 points or 0.77 percent, to 3,180.13.
Stocks opened slightly higher but slid after data showed
factory activity in the Mid-Atlantic region cooled in April and
the index of leading indicators, a gauge of future U.S. economic
activity, fell in March for the first time in seven months.
These numbers comprised the latest data to indicate a
step-back in the economy as tighter fiscal policy began to
Equities have been whipsawed in the past three sessions,
with a 1 percent move in either direction in the S&P 500
each day this week, the first such streak of volatility for the
index since the start of February.
The CBOE Volatility Index or VIX, Wall Street's
favorite barometer of investor anxiety, was up 3.2 percent.
The S&P 500's healthcare sector led the declines, with
UnitedHealth Group Inc down 3.2 percent at $60.06 after
the insurer lowered its 2013 revenue outlook.
Morgan Stanley reported a stronger-than-expected
first-quarter profit but revenue from fixed-income and
commodities trading fell sharply from a year earlier, reflecting
declines in interest rates and commodity prices. Morgan
Stanley's stock lost 4.2 percent to $20.56.
Verizon Communications and PepsiCo were among
the bright spots on the bulls' side after posting higher than
Verizon's stock gained 3.6 percent to $51.31 and PepsiCo
jumped 3.6 percent to $81.67.
Shares in the energy sector helped pare losses as Peabody
Energy, the world's largest private sector coal miner,
rose more nearly 10 percent after reporting a
smaller-than-expected first-quarter loss.
Brent crude oil rose as low prices after a
six-session losing streak attracted bargain hunters, further
supporting energy shares. Exxon and Chevron both
rose 1 percent.
Volume has been heavier on negative days, as many investors
have been anticipating a pullback for some time after stocks'
strong run to start the year, and are quick to book profits.
S&P 500 earnings are now expected to have risen 1.9 percent
in the first quarter, up from the 1.5 percent estimate at the
start of the month, based on actual results from 82 companies
and estimates for the rest, according to Thomson Reuters data
through Thursday morning.
Of the 82 companies that have reported earnings, 72 percent
have topped analysts' expectations, but only 43.9 percent have
beaten revenue forecasts.