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By Nicole Mordant and John Tilak
VANCOUVER/TORONTO April 26 (Reuters) - Barrick Gold Corp , the world's largest gold producer, on Tuesday reported first-quarter adjusted earnings that rose sharply, topping market expectations, pushing its shares higher.
The bullion miner also received a boost as shareholders at its annual meeting resoundingly backed the company's executive compensation plan, in a major reversal from a year ago when it was overwhelmingly voted down.
Say-on-pay votes are not binding in Canada, but they are viewed as a key barometer of investor sentiment.
"There's evidence that the board has taken into account, belatedly, the feedback from shareholders," said David Anderson, CEO of executive advisory firm Anderson Leadership Group. "It's hard to give them unqualified praise as they were a little slow in getting it right."
Shares of Barrick, which lowered its cost forecasts for the year, rose 1 percent to C$20.70 in Toronto.
The Toronto-based miner reported adjusted earnings of 11 cents a share, up from 5 cents a year ago and ahead of analyst expectations of 10 cents, on average, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
"Barrick's first-quarter earnings exceeded our expectations driven by impressive cost performance across its mine portfolio," said Sterne Agee analyst Michael Dudas, in a note to clients.
Barrick cut its forecast for all-in sustaining costs, the industry benchmark, for this year to a range of $760 to $810 per ounce from $775 to $825 before. It kept its gold production forecast unchanged at 5 million to 5.5 million ounces.
The miner, which has been selling non-core assets and using cashflow to pay down debt, said it was on track to cut debt by $2 billion this year. Total debt fell to $9.1 billion at the end of March from $10 billion at the end of December.
In the first three months, gold production fell 7.9 percent to 1.3 million ounces, while all-in sustaining costs fell 23.8 percent to $706 per ounce.
Barrick, which has mines in the Americas, Australia and Africa, reported a net loss of $83 million, or 7 cents per share, in the quarter ended March 31, compared with a profit of $57 million, or 5 cents per share, a year earlier.
Its stock has doubled in value this year on the back of stronger gold prices. Investors also have warmed to the company as it has cut operating costs and expenses and whittled down debt.
"We continue to believe fundamentals will remain supportive for gold and silver," said Dudas. (Additional reporting by Arathy S Nair in Bengaluru and Euan Rocha in Toronto; Editing by Bill Trott and David Gregorio)