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Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris speaks during the CERAWEEK world petrochemical conference in Houston March 8, 2012.


Solid sales of herbicides and other agricultural products helped Dow Chemical Co.'s first-quarter profit beat Wall Street's expectations, but lower-than-expected revenue pushed shares down more than 5 per cent in premarket trading Thursday.

Dow's chemicals and other products are used to make plastics, computers, clothing and many other consumer goods. The company's results are often seen as a barometer of global economic health.

The largest U.S. chemical maker by sales said the U.S. economy was improving, helped by shale-derived natural gas, and that China would continue to be an attractive growth market.

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But parts of Europe remain in "recessionary conditions," the company said. Volume rose in Europe only because of a propylene supply agreement Dow has with Braskem SA for that continent after the Brazilian company bought Dow's polypropylene business last year.

"We anticipate that global growth will gain momentum as we move through the second quarter and into the remainder of the year," Chief Executive Andrew Liveris said in a statement on Wednesday.

For the quarter ended March 31, the company posted net income of $412-million (U.S.), or 35 cents per share, compared with $6250million, or 54 cents per share, in the year-ago period.

Earlier this month, Dow said it would close four plants and lay off 900 workers, part of a plan to slash costs by $250-million annually amid a weak global economy.

Excluding a charge for that restructuring plan, and other one-time items, the company earned 61 cents a share.

By that measure, analysts had expected earnings of 59 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Revenue fell less than 1 per cent to $14.72-billion. Analysts had projected revenue of $15.01-billion.

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A strong start to the North American planting season helped Dow sell more herbicides, pesticides and other agricultural products. Sales jumped 14 per cent.

The company is awaiting U.S. approval for its Enlist biotech corn, which is engineered to withstand liberal dousings of a Dow-developed herbicide.

The government is taking public comments on the new product through Friday, and if approved, Enlist would give Dow a potent weapon to fight rivals DuPont and Monsanto.

Sales of Dow's performance plastics dropped 11 per cent largely due to weak margins in Europe and Asia. Dow uses crude oil-derived naphtha in those regions to make some plastics, and high oil prices have harmed profit.

In North America, by contrast, Dow uses shale-derived natural gas to make some plastics, and the cheap price of natural gas has boosted regional margins.

The company is building new ethylene plants on the U.S. Gulf Coast to process even more natural gas derived from shale drilling.

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Sales of de-icing fluids and other performance material products from Dow fell 2 per cent, partly due to a warm North American winter.

Dow's cash fell 34 per cent during the quarter to $3.61-billion as the company culled debt by more than $1 billion during the quarter.

Dow said the ratio its debt to market capitalization is roughly 41 per cent now.

Earlier this month Dow boosted its quarterly dividend to 32 cents from 25 cents.

Dow is an official global sponsor of the Olympics, and this summer's games in London is the first since the sponsorship was inked more than two years ago.

However, Dow's connection to a 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India, threatens to scuttle the goodwill. Several environmental groups have launched a media campaign ahead of the London event to get Dow removed as an official sponsor.

The leak occurred at a pesticide factory owned by a subsidiary of Union Carbide, which sold the facility in 1994. Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001.

The Indian government wants Dow to pay an additional $1.7-billion, but Dow has refused, saying it has no responsibility for Bhopal and that Union Carbide settled liabilities.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has defended Dow's sponsorship of the Olympics.

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