Panama has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the previous decade. Growth has been spearheaded by the development of a modern service sector on the activities surrounding the Canal, and non-residential construction. Large public infrastructure projects and the private provision for infrastructure demanded by the service sector, have fueled growth and created a vibrant labor market for non-skilled workers.
Two warning signals hover over Panama´s stellar performance. The construction sector has been growing for a decade at a rate that is equivalent to doubling its stock of structures every four years. The demand for non-residential construction cannot grow indefinitely at a higher rate than the rest of the economy. This feeds into the second signal: Income inequality. In spite of the minor improvements registered over the accelerated-growth spell, Panama remains amongst the world´s top five most unequal countries.
Both warning signals point out to the need of further diversifying the Panamanian economy, and promoting economic activity in the provinces so as to deconcentrate growth and make it more inclusive.
We deployed our Growth Diagnostic methodology in order to identify potential binding constraints to that process. Skilled labor, necessary to gradually diversify into more complex and high value-added activities, is relatively scarce. This scarcity manifests into large wage-premiums to foreigners across all occupations, which are particular large within more complex industries.
Major investments in education have improved indicators of schooling quantitatively, but quality remains a major concern. We find that Panama’s immigration policies are preventing skills from spilling over from their special economic zones into the rest of the economy. On top of that, the list of professions restricted to Panamanians and other constraints on skilled labor flows, are constraining even further the pool of skills. As we document here, these efforts are not helping the Panamanian workers, quite the contrary.
We also find that corruption, and to a lesser extent, red tape, are other important factors that shall be addressed in order to allow Panama to shift the gears of growth, tackle inequality and continue growing at a fast pace.
Originally published October 2016. Revised January 2017.