Dow Chemical ( DOW) reported first-quarter earnings fell 97% to $24 million, or 3 cents a share, but topped the estimates of analysts, as moves to control costs and prices mitigated the effects from what the company called the "worst global recession in decades."

Excluding certain items, earnings in the quarter were 12 cents a share. In the year-earlier first quarter, Dow reported net income of $941 million, or 99 cents a share.

The latest quarter included severance charges and $48 million in pretax transaction costs related to the acquisition of Rohm and Haas.

Sales in the quarter were $9.1 billion, down 39% from sales of $14.8 billion a year earlier.

Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected a first-quarter loss of 21 cents a share on sales of $11.69 billion.

Volume declined 19% in the first quarter, while prices fell 20%.

In a statement Thursday, Dow Chemical said sales in its agricultural segment rose 10% from a year earlier, reflecting a 10% increase in volume.

Dow said "rapid actions to reduce operating costs" in the quarter resulted spending by $270 million from a year earlier and sequentially.

"Our positive earnings in this recessionary environment were the direct result of our rapid actions to reduce costs and tightly manage operations," said Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris. "We achieved profitability in spite of continued weak demand throughout most of our value chains and further deflation in feedstock and energy costs which put pressure on prices, particularly in the basics segments."

Dow said it's "prudent to expect that 2009 will still be a recessionary year globally, and we are not counting on material improvements in economic conditions in the near term."