Latin America's real estate Panamania

Once a sleepy Latin American capital, Panama City has become one of the world's hottest real estate markets. How long can the fever last?

By Eliza Barclay, Fortune Magazine

(Fortune Magazine) -- Off in the distance, where Panama Bay becomes the Pacific, container ships loaded with merchandise bound for the U.S. bob in the haze. Closer in, a flock of construction cranes hovers over densely clustered high-rises. Fourteen stories below, on Balboa Avenue, cars inch along, their windows sealed tight against the sweltering heat.

The view belongs to Jim and Imogene Buckley, a retired couple from Greensboro, Ga., who purchased their one-bedroom condo a few years ago, before it was built, for $140,000. The apartment, which they'll use every other winter month, alternating with another couple from Wyoming, gives them a ringside seat overlooking one of the world's hottest real estate markets.

panamania_helmets.03.jpg
Construction workers on the Punta Pacifica construction site.
Panama facts
Population:
3.2 million
GDP growth:
8.1% in 2006
Median apartment price in Panama City:
$232,000
Canal's capacity:
expanding from 300 million tons to more than 600 million tons
Permanent-residency visas for U.S. citizens 55 and over, 2003--06:
1,379

"Panama looked like a good investment and a place to have a good time," says Jim Buckley, 76, a former U.S. Air Guard pilot, while admiring the view. "You don't need a lot of sense to see that it will increase in property value."

Panama City is in the midst of an unprecedented real estate boom that is transforming the skyline of this once-sleepy Latin American capital. More than 30,000 units worth about $5.7 billion have come on the market since last July, according to Paul McBride, CEO of Prima Panama, a real estate marketing company.

That's a lot of condos in a country where the total economy measured $16.2 billion last year. And the boom shows no sign of abating: Among the showiest of the new projects is the Iron Tower, a 78-story luxury apartment building and Hilton Hotel complex that will be one of the tallest buildings in Latin America when it is completed. Even Donald Trump has a project on the boards.

Part of what's driving growth in Panama City, where the median apartment price recently surpassed the median home price in the U.S., is a wave of retirees from North America, like the Buckleys, looking for a place in the sun. So far, few Americans have moved permanently, but many are buying second homes or just plain speculating. Europeans are here too, and there's plenty of new wealth in Latin America, in places like Venezuela and Colombia, looking for a safe haven.

Call it Panamania. Is it a bubble in the making, or the rise of a new Miami? Despite the abundance of cranes around Panama City, only about 10 percent of the projects being sold are under construction, says McBride. "We're not even seeing the construction boom in Panama yet," he says. "This place will look like Manhattan if all these projects come to fruition."

Certainly the decision to spend $5.2 billion to double the width of the Panama Canal, the country's biggest source of revenue, is a sign of Panama's prosperity. The addition of a new lane and a new set of locks will allow post-Panamax container ships, the world's largest, to pass through the canal. "The expansion of the canal has woken up the curiosity of a lot of people," says Saul Faskha, the local developer of the Iron Tower and one of Panama's biggest boosters.

Panama's economy has been growing at breakneck speed - 8.1 percent last year, compared with 6.4 percent in 2005 - and the government finished the year with a surplus of $576 million. Exports from Panama's free-trade zone, the second largest in the world after Hong Kong's, have helped fuel the growth. The U.S. Congress is expected to sign a free-trade agreement with Panama sometime this year, which should boost exports even further. And several multinational corporations have moved or are moving their Latin American headquarters to Panama City, including Caterpillar, Sanofi-Aventis and Samsung.

Consumer spending has also swelled, the banking sector is strong, and 40,000 new jobs were created last year. All that is good news for the government of Martín Torrijos, son of former strongman Omar Torrijos, who ruled Panama from 1968 to 1981.

Unlike his father, the younger Torrijos came to power in a fair election in 2004. And unlike his father, Torrijos doesn't have to deal with a U.S.-occupied Canal Zone: Panama took control of the canal in 1999 and has proved adept at running it. Gone, too, are the U.S. troops that toppled another dictator, Manuel Noriega, a corrupt former general who is nearing the end of a 17-year U.S. prison term for cocaine trafficking.

Rumors that Noriega might want to return to Panama have cast a cloud over an otherwise bright mood. But the country, 36 percent of whose population lives in poverty, has other problems to deal with. For one thing, says Torrijos, during a recent trip to a small mountain town, "there is a huge demand now for a skilled workforce."

Indeed, a labor shortage has already helped slow construction activity in Panama City, and developers are concerned that other factors may hinder the completion of projects. Materials and equipment are in high demand, from rebar to cement to earthmovers. The construction frenzy has also put a strain on the city's infrastructure, and the government is struggling to build enough roads, water-treatment facilities and other projects.

One big problem: All of Panama City's sewage is dumped into the bay, and a treatment plant won't be completed until 2009. "Panama has grown very, very fast - we didn't anticipate this," says Ubaldino Real, Minister of the Presidency. "The government has had to take out more money to be able to act much faster to build roads."

But that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of people like José Manuel Bern, director of sales and projects for Empresas Bern, one of Panama City's oldest and largest developers. The company's Bayfront Tower, completed in April, is among the first buildings designed for foreigners - distinct from those built for locals because they have balconies but no maid's rooms. Bern says that he sold nearly all the apartments in the tower four years ago, and that units that originally went for $130,000 now sell for $330,000. "We used to be very focused on the local market," he says, "but now I sell to a foreigner every other day."

Prima Panama's McBride and others are worried that the building boom is ultimately going to exceed demand. "I do not think there will be sufficient buyers to absorb capacity, if in fact capacity is delivered," McBride says. "When you see prices going up, driven by speculative investors, that points to a bubble."

Try telling that to Adolfo Olloqui, a Spanish developer whose company, Grupo Olloqui, is building what will be one of the tallest luxury towers in downtown Panama City, the 77-story Palacio de la Bahia. "Panama is the Miami of the future," he says. "With the visa problems in the U.S., South Americans, Central Americans and North Americans will want to come here to do business and to live."

Or try telling it to the Buckleys, who at least have a splendid view from their new Panama perch.  Top of page