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UPDATE 4-BP's profit fall cushioned by higher output, trading

Ron Bousso

* Profits down nearly one third to $2.4 billion

* But profits still slightly exceed forecasts (Updates shares)

LONDON, April 30 (Reuters) - BP's first quarter profits fell by nearly a third but beat forecasts as lower oil and gas prices and weaker refining margins were partly offset by higher production and stronger trading.

The slump in profits marks the first significant dent in BP's steady recovery over the past 18 months following the sector's 2014 downturn.

"We produced resilient earnings and cash flow through a volatile period that began with weak market conditions and included significant turnarounds," Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley said in a statement.

BP shares were up 0.5 percent by 0933 GMT, compared with a 0.2 percent gain for the broader sector.

Profits from refining and retail operations, known as downstream, fell by around one fifth to $1.7 billion on weaker margins and narrower discounts of heavy crude oil that benefit BP's 413,500 barrel-per-day Whiting, Indiana refinery.

The fall was nevertheless mitigated by stronger results from trading, which have often in the past helped the company weather volatile markets, as well as better earnings from its retail division.

BP does not disclose its trading profits. Chief Financial Officer Brian Gilvary said on a call with analysts that trading delivered hundreds of millions of dollars in profits above expectations.

The downstream performance contrasts with rivals Exxon Mobil and Chevron, whose trading operations are smaller than BP's. They saw larger-than-expected falls in profits on weak U.S. gasoline prices. Exxon posted its first loss in refining since 2009.

France's Total also posted a drop in profits. Royal Dutch Shell reports first quarter results on Thursday.

Refining margins rebounded in April, boosted by tighter gasoline supplies and a string of planned and unplanned refinery outages around the world.

GEARING UNCHANGED

"It may be small but it's a bottom line beat for BP," Bernstein analyst Oswald Clint said in a note.

"That marks the 9th quarter in a row BP have beaten street expectations and should help sustain the tailwind behind the shares."

London-based BP's first-quarter underlying replacement cost profit, the company's definition of net income, came to $2.4 billion, exceeding forecasts of $2.3 billion in a company-provided survey of analysts.

That was down from $2.6 billion a year earlier and from $3.5 billion in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Cashflow from operations, which had risen to their highest level in four years in the previous quarter, fell by over 20 percent to $5.3 billion.

Oil and gas production in the quarter, excluding BP's stake in Russia's Rosneft, rose 2 percent from a year earlier following the acquisition of BHP's onshore U.S. shale portfolio and the start-up of new projects.

The company expects production to remain unchanged in the second quarter.

Gearing, the ratio between debt and BP's market value, rose slightly to 30.4 percent as of the end of March following the BHP acquisition and a change in accounting reporting. Net debt was $45.1 billion.

BP said it expected "significantly higher" refinery maintenance activity in the second quarter.

(Reporting by Ron Bousso; editing by Jason Neely)