Given its dollarized economy, a stable democratic government, the Panama Canal, the world’s second largest free trade zone, a network of free trade agreements, and a strategic geographical location, Panama attracts high levels of foreign direct investment from around the world and has solid potential as a foreign direct investment (FDI) magnet and regional hub for a number of sectors. Panama attracts more U.S. FDI than any other country in Central America, closing 2019 with $5.27 billion, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Over the last decade, Panama had been one of the Western Hemisphere’s fastest growing economies. However, 2020 was a difficult year for Panama, which saw a GDP contraction of 17.9 percent, 18.5 percent unemployment, government revenues down by a third, and downgrades in its investment grade sovereign bond rating. Analysts forecast 4-5 percent GDP gains for 2022-2025. The global crisis hit many of Panama’s key industries, including tourism, construction, real estate, aviation, and services ancillary to trade. However, key industries such as banking, mining, the maritime sector, and Canal operations have remained stable throughout the crisis.
Panama faces structural challenges even beyond those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including corruption, an inefficient judicial system, an under-educated workforce, and an inflexible labor code, which often discourage additional foreign investments or complicate existing ones. With a population of just over four million, Panama’s small market size is not worth the perceived risk of investment for many companies. The World Bank classified Panama in July 2018 as a “high-income” jurisdiction in its annual country classifications, after its Gross National Income per capita moved past the threshold for high-income classification. Nevertheless, Panama is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with the 17th highest Gini Coefficient and a national poverty rate of 18 percent, with pockets of 90 percent poverty in indigenous regions.
The Cortizo administration has addressed investment challenges by prioritizing key economic reforms required to improve the investment climate and passing a new investment incentives measure for the manufacturing industry. It also created a new Minister Counselor for Investment position that reports directly to the President, with the aim of attracting new investors and dislodging barriers that confront current ones. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused the government to pivot to crisis management and basic economic recovery, although efforts to attract investment continue. Panama also remains on the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list for systemic deficiencies that impede progress in combatting money laundering and terrorist financing.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2020||111 of 180||http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview|
|World Bank’s Doing Business Report||2020||86 of 190||http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings|
|Global Innovation Index||2020||73 of 131||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions)||2019||$5,272 million||https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|World Bank GNI per capita||2019||$14,950||http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD|
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Panama has a stock market with an effective regulatory system developed to support foreign investment. Article 44 of the constitution guarantees the protection of private ownership of real property and private investments. Some private companies, including multinational corporations, have issued bonds in the local securities market. Companies rarely issue stock on the local market and, when they do, often issue shares without voting rights. Investor demand is generally limited because of the small pool of qualified investors. While some Panamanians may hold overlapping interests in various businesses, there is no established practice of cross-shareholding or stable shareholder arrangements designed to restrict foreign investment through mergers and acquisitions. Panama has agreed to IMF Article VIII and pledged not to impose restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.
In 2012, Panama modified its securities law to regulate brokers, fund managers, and matters related to the securities industry. The Commission structure was modified to follow the successful Banking Law model and now consists of a superintendent and a board of directors. The Superintendency of the Securities Market is generally considered a competent and effective regulator. Panama is a full signatory to the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO).
Government policy and law with respect to access to credit treat Panamanian and foreign investors equally. Panamanian interest rates closely follow international rates (i.e., the U.S. federal funds rate, the London Interbank Offered Rate, etc.), plus a country-risk premium.
Money and Banking System
Panama’s banking sector is developed and highly regulated and there are no restrictions on a foreigner’s ability to establish a bank account. Foreigners are required to present a passport and taxpayer identification number and an affidavit indicating that the inflow and outflow of money meets the tax obligations of the beneficiary’s tax residence. The adoption of financial technology in Panama is nascent, but there are several initiatives underway to modernize processes.
Some U.S. citizens and entities have had difficulty meeting the high documentary threshold for establishing the legitimacy of their activities both inside and outside Panama. Banking officials counter such complaints by citing the need to comply with international financial transparency standards. Several of Panama’s largest banks have gone so far as to refuse to establish banking relationships with whole sectors of the economy, such as casinos and e-commerce, in order to avoid all possible associated risks. Regulatory issues have made it difficult for some private U.S. citizens to open bank accounts in Panama, leaving some legitimate businesses without access to banking services in Panama. Panama has no central bank.
The banking sector is highly dependent on the operating environment in Panama, but it is generally well-positioned to withstand shocks. The banking sector could be impacted if Panama’s sovereign debt rating continues to fall. In early 2021, Fitch downgraded four private banks and one state-owned bank, based primarily on concerns about Panama’s pandemic-related weakening of public finances. As of this writing, three banks have been downgraded to non-investment grade. Approximately 4.7 percent of total banking sector assets are estimated to be non-performing. The four largest banks have total assets of $54.5 billion, which represents 47.07 percent of the National Banking System.
Panama’s 2008 Banking Law regulates the country’s financial sector. The law concentrates regulatory authority in the hands of a well-financed Banking Superintendent (https://www.superbancos.gob.pa/).
Traditional bank lending from the well-developed banking sector is relatively efficient and is the most common source of financing for both domestic and foreign investors, offering the private sector a variety of credit instruments. The free flow of capital is actively supported by the government and is viewed as essential to Panama’s 68 banks (2 official banks, 39 domestic banks, 17 international banks, and 10 bank representational offices).
Foreign banks can operate in Panama and are subject to the same regulatory regime as domestic banks. Panama has not lost any correspondent banking relationships in the last three years.
There are no restrictions on, nor practical measures to prevent, hostile foreign investor takeovers, nor are there regulatory provisions authorizing limitations on foreign participation or control, or other practices that restrict foreign participation. There are no government or private sector rules that prevent foreign participation in industry standards-setting consortia. Financing for consumers is relatively open for mortgages, credit cards, and personal loans, even to those earning modest incomes.
Panama’s strategic geographic location, dollarized economy, status as a regional financial, trade, and logistics hub, and favorable corporate and tax laws make it an attractive destination for money launderers. Money laundered in Panama is believed to come in large part from the proceeds of drug trafficking. Tax evasion, bank fraud, and corruption are also believed to be major sources of illicit funds in Panama. Criminals have been accused of laundering money through shell companies and via bulk cash smuggling and trade at airports and seaports, and in active free trade zones.
In 2015, Panama strengthened its legal framework, amended its criminal code, harmonized legislation with international standards, and passed a law on anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT). Panama also approved Law 18 (2015), which severely restricts the use of bearer shares; companies still using them must appoint a custodian and maintain strict controls over their use. In addition, Panama passed Law 70 (2019), which criminalizes tax evasion and defines it as a money laundering predicate offense.
In June 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) added Panama to its grey list of jurisdictions subject to ongoing monitoring due to strategic AML/CFT deficiencies. FATF cited Panama’s lack of “positive, tangible progress” in measures of effectiveness. Panama agreed to an Action Plan in four major areas: 1) risk, policy, and coordination; 2) supervision; 3) legal persons and arrangements; and 4) money laundering investigation and prosecution. The Action Plan outlined concrete measures that were to be completed in stages by May and September 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FATF granted Panama two extensions, pushing the deadline to January 2021. At its plenary in February 2021, FATF left Panama on the grey list and noted its progress so far, but also pointed to Action Plan items that still need to be addressed.
Panama is only beginning to accurately track criminal prosecutions and convictions related to money laundering and tax evasion. Law enforcement needs more tools and training to conduct long-term, complex financial investigations, including undercover operations. The criminal justice system remains at risk for corruption. However, Panama has made progress in assessing high-risk sectors, improving inter-ministerial cooperation, and passing (though not yet implementing) a law on beneficial ownership. Additionally, the GoP and the United States recently signed an MOU to provide training to combat money laundering and corruption, through judicial investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
Panama’s official currency is the U.S. Dollar.
Panama has customer due diligence, bulk cash, and suspicious transaction reporting requirements for money service providers (MSB), including 18 remittance companies. Post is not aware of any time limits or waiting periods for remittances. In 2017, the Bank Superintendent assumed oversight of AML/CFT compliance for MSBs. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MICI) grants operating licenses for remittance companies under Law 48 (2003). There have not been any changes to the remittance policies in 2020.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
Panama started a sovereign wealth fund, called the Panama Savings Fund (FAP), in 2012 with an initial capitalization of $1.3 billion. The fund follows the Santiago Principles and is a member of the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds. The law mandates that from 2015 onward contributions to the National Treasury from the Panama Canal Authority in excess of 3.5 percent of GDP must be deposited into the Fund. In October 2018, the rule for accumulation of the savings was modified to require that when contributions from the Canal exceed 2.5 percent of GDP, half the surplus must go to national savings. At the end of 2020 the fund had $1.38 billion in equity, compared to $1.39 billion at the end of 2019, with less than 3 percent invested domestically. Panama withdrew $105 million from the FAP in 2020 for pandemic relief. The fund had a gross income of $96 million in 2020.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
|Host Country Statistical source*||USG or international statistical source||USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other|
|Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD)||2019||$43,061||2020||$54,843||www.worldbank.org/en/country|
|Foreign Direct Investment||2018 $58,023 million||USG or international statistical source||https://www.inec.gob.pa/publicaciones/Default3.aspx?ID_PUBLICACION=973&ID_CATEGORIA=4&ID_SUBCATEGORIA=25
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions)||N/A||N/A||2019||$5,272||BEA data available at https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions)||N/A||N/A||2019||$2,965||BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data|
|Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP||N/A||N/A||2019||7.2%||UNCTAD data available at
* Source for Host Country Data: https://www.contraloria.gob.pa/assets/informe-del-contralor-2019.pdf
Panama reports its GDP numbers as compared to a benchmark of $21.296 million from 2007. The 2019 figures from the table are measured from this benchmark and correspond to a 3 percent increase from 2018.
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Outward Direct Investment data is not available. No countries designated as tax havens are sources of inward FDI.
|Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data|
|From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)|
|Inward Direct Investment||Outward Direct Investment|
|Total Inward||34,124||100%||Total Outward||N/A||100%|
|United States||9,132||27%||Country #2||N/A||X%|
|United Kingdom||3,007||9%||Country #5||N/A||X%|
|“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.|
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
The data is from June 2020.
|Portfolio Investment Assets|
|Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars)|
|Total||Equity Securities||Total Debt Securities|
|All Countries||13,553||100%||All Countries||929||100%||All Countries||12,624||100%|
|United States||10,013||74%||United States||545||59%||United States||9,467||75%|
|Costa Rica||274||2%||Luxembourg||71||8%||Costa Rica||273||2%|