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Malaysia's surprising March export growth boosts outlook

* March exports +2.3 pct y/y vs Reuters poll f'cast -3.9 pct

* March imports +5.8 pct y/y vs +1.0 pct f'cast

* Trade surplus 7.82 bln rgt vs f'cast 6.4 bln rgt surplus

* Exports to China +6.6 pct y/y; to U.S +17.8 pct y/y (Adds economist's comments, markets)

KUALA LUMPUR, May 7 (Reuters) - Malaysia posted surprising growth in exports in March, raising the prospect of an improved economic outlook in coming months that could alleviate pressure on the fragile ringgit.

The strong exports and trade surplus, along with higher imports, reinforce expectations that Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) will likely keep its policy rates unchanged later on Thursday.

Malaysia's exports in March rose 2.3 percent from a year earlier, confounding expectations for a third month of decline, as demand for electronics products boosted exports to its key markets China and the United States.

The central bank has said that the more diversified economy will bolster growth even as oil prices remain low, which have hurt the reserves of the oil-exporting country.

"This supports the signals from BNM that the economy is resilient and there's no real reason for them to ease" monetary policy, said economist Euben Paracuelles at Nomura.

The central bank is due to announce the outcome of its latest policy review at 1000 GMT. A Reuters poll of economists unanimously expect the central bank to leave the rate unchanged.

Imports rose a better-than-expected 5.8 percent from a year earlier due to more intermediate goods brought in before the implementation of a 6 percent consumer tax on April 1.

A Reuters poll had forecast exports would drop 3.9 percent, while imports were expected to rise 1.0 percent.

"Malaysia's product mix is catered to the improvement in the U.S," said Paracuelles, adding that Nomura had underestimated the growth of electronics exports.

The trade surplus for the month widened to 7.82 billion ringgit ($2.2 billion) from 4.5 billion ringgit in February.

Exports of commodities remained weak as palm oil, crude oil and petroleum products saw sharp declines due to lower global prices. But analysts said commodities exports should improve as global prices stabilise.

After 10 consecutive months of decline, exports to China in March rose 6.6 percent due to strength in electrical and electronic product shipments. However, overall exports to China in the first quarter fell 12.6 percent, due to a weak performance in the first two months of 2015.

Malaysia's first quarter exports declined 2.5 percent from a year earlier, while imports rose a mere 0.2 percent.

The ringgit, emerging Asia's second-worst performing currency so far this year, cut losses on the strong export data before turning weaker.

For a graphic on Malaysia's exports and imports, please click:

($1 = 3.5870 ringgit) (Reporting by Trinna Leong; Editing by Chris Cushing and Jacqueline Wong)