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Panama Predictions—Looking Ahead To 2014 (Spoiler: It’s More Good News)

I grew up in England but left that country about 30 years ago and have lived in 7 countries since, including Costa Rica, where I’m currently located.

When I set out on my living overseas adventures, I wasn’t much concerned with the economies of the countries where I was spending time. However, as I matured in my experiences, I realized that the economic underpinning of a country is a big deal. If you’re thinking about living, investing, or even just parking cash in a country, you should care about that country’s economic health. It impacts everyone, including foreign retirees and investors.

Why? First, infrastructure. A healthy economy translates into roads without potholes, electricity that works, water that’s clean and drinkable, and Internet systems that are high-speed and reliable.

Second, safety and job creation. If you have money to spend, you can afford a decent police force. Plus, if a country’s economy is creating jobs that country is less likely to end up with a disenfranchised youth and all the negative implications that can mean for the safety of the country. We’re starting to see this play out in Europe, where there’s 50% unemployment in Spain and 57% unemployment in Greece, for example.

Third, if you’re buying real estate, the state of the local economy is going to impact your resell value. Unless you’re planning to live in the property until you die, this is an important consideration.

Finally, an economy that is growing tends to attract further investment, leading to more growth.

I’m living in Costa Rica right now, but my investment focus is on Panama. Why? Because what’s going on with this country’s economy right now is nothing short of extraordinary (in a good way).

Panama has a long-term vision that they really don’t talk about in public. They’d like to be just like Singapore—that is, they’d like to be legitimately First World. The city-state of Singapore dragged itself up by the bootstraps after the Second World War and now its citizens enjoy a standard of living that’s the envy of most countries around the world. Singapore is too sterile for my tastes, but the point is that it’s nice. It’s clean. Plus, it’s a transportation center for Southeast Asia, as well as a financial hub for the region—two things specifically that Panama wants to be for Latin America.

Panama achieved roughly 8% growth each year from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, when most of the rest of the world went negative, Panama achieved 2.4% growth. The following year, it jumped back up to 7.5%, and its growth rate has been above 10% every year since. The forecast from the IMF for 2013 is 9% growth. This alone puts this country in a different league compared with all other countries in Central America.

Both fueling and resulting from this growth is foreign direct investment, which reached roughly US$3 billion dollars in 2012. Panama’s GDP is US$30 billion, meaning foreign direct investment is about 10% of the country’s economy. This is a very big bet by foreign companies on the country’s future prospects.

All of this investment creates jobs. In 2005 Panama’s unemployment rate was somewhere between 8% and 12%, depending on whose numbers you believe. Today it’s about 4%. Meantime, unemployment rates have risen throughout the rest of the region since 2005 and especially after the hardships the economies of other Central American countries have suffered as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.

Panama currently has the inverse problem of unemployment; the country is running out of skilled workers. A lot of the foreign direct investment is from advanced companies that need well-educated, bilingual labor. This is a real concern because it could slow down future foreign investment. If you can’t find enough people to hire, why would you invest to build a new facility in the country? Most countries facing a challenge like that would do nothing, and as a result foreign investment would slow down.

Panama, though, decided it wasn’t going to stand by while its impressive growth rates declined and created a new law. Specifically, President Ricardo Martinelli issued an executive decree that changed the process through which foreigners from certain countries can apply for work visas. This sent a clear signal that Panama is prepared to tackle its labor challenges, and the companies thinking about investing here heard it loud and clear.

Today we’re seeing an influx of qualified young people from around the world in Panama applying for (and receiving) work permits.

Martinelli came to power in 2009. He’s not universally loved, but he has a style about him—like a bull in a china shop. The prior government established a law saying that, when a government comes into power, it must publish a plan. Martinelli, when he came into office, did that. Being an American-educated politician, he did what all good politicians do: He hired McKinsey and Company to write his plan for him. McKinsey used lots of good buzzwords like “competitive advantages” and “drive sustainable growth.” The key thing about the plan, though, is that it was published very shortly after Martinelli took office and posted on the government’s website where anybody can download it.

Maybe there’s nothing unique about that; governments publish plans from time to time. What’s different about Martinelli’s plan is that he began executing it immediately. I don’t have space here to go into all aspects of the plan, but I’d like to highlight two key ones—to do with transportation in Panama City and tourism.

Because of the strong economy, the number of vehicles on the road in Panama City has increased 63% in the last two-and-a-half years. Meantime, the population of the capital city is expected to grow to 2.2 million people by 2025, a 40% increase from today. Traffic is already horrendous. How could the city possibly support that many more people and cars? We’re talking gridlock if we’re not careful. So, from day one, Martinelli’s plan has focused on key investments to attack the transportation challenges in Panama City.

One key part of Martinelli’s transportation plan is the creation of a new city metro system, which is well under way and slated to open in early 2014. Why 2014? Because Martinelli’s term in office ends next year and all his big works have to be finished before he leaves if he wants credit for them.

Martinelli’s second big area of focus has been on Panama’s position as a tourist destination. One thing to understand is that Panama has big and growing numbers of both regular tourists and business tourists. It also has a fast-growing market of shopping tourists; since it’s become more difficult for Latin Americans to get visas to travel to the United States, they’re now coming to Panama to do their brand-name shopping.

To support these expanding markets, Martinelli’s plan has expanded Tocumen International Airport, which is undergoing a US$64 million refit. Once that’s done, the next step is a US$670 million new wing. The net result is that by 2016 the airport will have 54 gates and be able to handle 18 million passengers each year, triple its current capacity.

Copa, the national airline, has invested a lot of the money in a new fleet, and many international airlines are now flying to this country. Traditionally, only Iberia flew from Europe to Panama. Recently, though, Condor introduced flights from Frankfurt and KLM added a flight from Amsterdam. At the end of this year, Air France will start non-stop flights from Paris three times a week with a fourth weekly flight planned for 2014.

Tourism is important to Panama, but a bigger key to this country’s economy is its canal. When the United States turned over control of the canal to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999, nobody knew what to expect. But the Panamanians have impressed the world on this score, dramatically increasing tonnage and revenues and significantly reducing transit time. As a result of all that, canal transit prices have gone up. In shipping, time equals money. If I can get my ship through the canal quicker, I’m happy to pay more.

The Panama Canal Authority (PCA) is an independent entity. It’s not part of the Panamanian government, but a portion of its profits are returned to the government each year. Specifically, the PCA cuts a check in the amount of about US$500 million to the Panamanian Treasury annually. Five hundred million a year in the context of a US$30 billion economy is a lot. That’s part of the reason the Panamanian government has so much money to invest in infrastructure.

The ripple effect of the canal on Panama’s economy is big and goes well beyond ships and containers. The country is number one in the world in maritime registrations and maritime insurance. It has a major trade finance industry, and the Colon Free Trade Zone is one of the largest in the world.

And now Panama is spending US$5 billion to expand the canal. It’s a common misconception that the government is spending this money; in fact, it’s a private entity making the investment to expand the canal beyond its current PanamaMax capacity. Martinelli is hoping to be able to say, “Look, we did it!” before he leaves office, but I suspect the expansion work will be completed a bit late for that, though not by much—maybe in 2015. Once the expansion is complete, Panama’s economy will see another significant boost.

To sum up, we have a government with money to invest even as it’s managing all external debt and that is focusing its spending on mammoth-scale infrastructure improvements. The current investment plan totals about US$13 billion, triple the spending of the previous government.

An American reading this might not be impressed. Americans are used to thinking about government investment figures that start with a “T,” but let me try and put the current situation in Panama into context. We’re talking about US$13 billion from the government plus the US$5 to US$6 billion being invested in the canal—for a total investment, let’s say, of US$19 billion. The U.S. economy is 300 times bigger than the Panamanian economy, meaning that US$19 billion is the U.S. equivalent of US$5.6 trillion.

A significant amount of money at a time when most countries in the world are scaling back. And that gives Panama—and everyone investing here—a real competitive advantage.

David Stubbs

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