(Adds comments by strategy VP in paragraphs 8 through 10, background and earnings forecast in paragraphs 11 and 12)

May 10 (Reuters) - Argentina's state oil firm YPF on Friday said its $5 billion spending plan for 2024 should push its free cash flow into negative territory similar to that recorded last year, while its debt ratio should fall below 2023 levels.

YPF recorded a negative cash flow of $740 million in 2023, and finance chief Federico Barroetavena told analysts in a conference call that heavy investing particularly in its shale projects should bring this year's figure to similar levels.

The firm's net leverage ratio should similarly land in the range of last year's ratio of 1.7 times, he added.

For next year, Barroetavena forecast a "more neutral" year for cash flow and said that while for now the company was focusing on maximizing shareholder value by investing in its main Vaca Muerta shale project, resuming dividends would be a "top priority" by 2026.

Vaca Muerta is one of the world's largest shale formations, located in Argentina's Neuquen province, and authorities hope it can help the country become a net energy exporter while helping alleviate the worst economic crisis in decades.

Barroetavena was upbeat about economic indicators recorded under the government of libertarian President Javier Milei, who took office in December.

The executive said he was monitoring the government's incentive regime for large investments, which would affect development of YPF's liquefied natural gas (LNG) project.

Strategy Vice-President Maximiliano Westen added that regarding Vaca Muerta's southern project, a first tranche, estimated to cost some $250 million, was in construction, while YPF now had an environmental permit for the second tranche, estimated for some $2.2 billion.

The second tranche, a trunk of pipeline connecting Neuquen province to an Atlantic port, is generating "a lot of interest in participating," Westen said, without giving more details.

He added the firm's

divestment plan

was on track and the company expects to receive offers by June and complete transactions in the second half of the year.

The call comes a day after YPF

reported a net profit

for the first three months of 2024, doubling last year's figure and reversing two quarters in the red, while revenues rose just above expectations and oil and gas production increased.

Core earnings, up 19% in the first quarter, should show a strong recovery this year, Barroetavena added, on the back of fuel pricing strategies already being implemented and growing shale oil production. (Reporting by Sarah Morland; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Chris Reese)