“The strong economic performance of the last few years continues, despite the deteriorating global environment,” said International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials last week in a public statement.
“Panama was one of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2007 with real growth rising to 11.2 percent, following an average growth rate of nearly 8 percent in 2004-06 … Growth in 2008-09 is projected to slow somewhat, to about 8 percent, with the Canal expansion and related investment activities partially offsetting the effects of higher oil prices and the slowdown in the U.S. and the global economy.”
The IMF has also upped predictions for Panama’s economic growth to 8.3 per cent for this year, up from a more modest estimate of 7.7 per cent in April’s World Economic Outlook report.
“Despite a deteriorating external environment, economic prospects are favorable,” concluded IMF board directors, “thanks to the Canal expansion project and associated investment, as well as improvements in competitiveness reflected in expanding export services such as tourism, communications, and transportation.”
IMF directors commented that Panama’s financial sector has not been negatively affected by the global financial turmoil, noting the ‘remarkable turnaround’ in the non-financial public sector as well; these factors, combined with the strong economic growth, contributed to Panama’s improved credit rating from Standard and Poors earlier this year, earning the country a BB+ (stable).
Analysts at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, a global auditor, also estimate an increase of 8.5 to 9 per cent growth for Panama in 2008, in their Economic Perspectives 2008 report, “marking the sixth consecutive year of strong growth”.
According to the latest report by Indesa, a Panamanian advisory and financial services firm, the economy is expected to grow 8.4 per cent in 2008 and nearly 10 per cent in 2009, putting Panama at the forefront of economic growth in Latin America, along with Uruguay and Peru, which posted first quarter growth results of 11 and 9.2 per cent respectively.
Panama’s 2007 gross domestic product (GDP) topped $19.7 billion in 2007, and is projected to surpass $24 billion this year.
The driving sectors in Panama are construction, mining, financial services, transport and telecomnunications, and hospitality. Last year, both construction and mining grew by 19.6 per cent apiece according to Indesa, offsetting smaller gains in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.
In fact, it is Panama’s service-based economy that has allowed it to weather rising oil prices, as well as its proximity to the US, where economic uncertainty has travelers opting for nearby leisure destinations. Panama is emerging as a significant business and tourism destination in the region for travelers from both North and South America, with the Tocumen airport acting as a regional hub between the continent’s major cities.
In a report issued by the Panamanian government, authorities estimate the tertiary or service sector accounted for nearly three-quarters of the country’s GDP in 2006.
“In the past three years (2004, 2005, and 2006), the tertiary sector has developed significantly, with growth rates of 6.8 per cent, 9.4 per cent, and 9.3 per cent,” indicated the Panama Trade Policy Review to the World Trade Organization. “Mention should be made of the Colon Free Zone and of the hotel and restaurant subsector, which grew by more than 10 per cent. Other components of the sector also trended upwards significantly, such as financial intermediation, wholesale and retail commerce, and real estate.
“The high percentage of GDP that this sector represents and has represented in the past, shows that Panama is a service-oriented economy. In 2006 the sector accounted for 74 per cent of GDP.”
The external sector has also been a strong economic driver, with the export of goods averaging five per cent annual growth between 1997 and 2006, reaching more than $1 billion USD. By 2006, the net export of goods and services represented one third of Panama GDP.
Despite the fact this year’s numbers are down from 2007, which saw record growth levels of about 11 per cent, the overall positive trend is in stark contrast to regional predictions. The Economist estimates the mid-term trend for Latin America to average out at 3.9 per cent in 2012, while the IMF predicts a much better performance for Panama.
“The medium-term outlook is promising, supported by the canal expansion and other large construction projects,” noted the IMF’s board of directors last year in a public statement. “For 2007-10, staff projects average annual real GDP growth of about 6.5 per cent, [and] inflation of 2.25 -2.75 per cent.”
IMF officials commended Panamanian authorities on governmental spending ‘restraint’ and improved tax collection in reducing public debt and creating a sound basis for economic growth. Declining unemployment, plummeting from 13.6 per cent in 2003 to 7.3 in 2007, was also cited, as was the positive impact of the Panama Canal expansion, expected to be completed in 2007 at a cost of some $5 billion.
“The project is expected to boost GDP growth and job creation, both directly and by stimulating related industries,” noted IMF officials.
The Latin Business Chronicle has also placed Panama at the top of its Latin Business Index, thanks to $1.8 billion in direct foreign investment (DFI) in 2007. Panama beat out Chile, which saw more than $14 billion in DFI in 2007, taking the top spot for the higher proportion of investment to its GDP.
Inflation, which has typically been very low for Panama thanks to a currency pegged to the US dollar, has risen in step with the recent devaluation of the US dollar. While 2007 saw an increase over the previous year, going from 2.5 per cent to 4.2 cent, Panama’s inflation remained well below all other Latin American countries, which averaged 7.75 per cent. However, inflation reached nearly nine per cent in May of 2008, which the IMF largely attributes to rising food and fuel costs.