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Panama: Changing Structure of the Economy
Country Study > Chapter 3 > The Economy > Growth and Structure of the Economy > Changing Structure of the Economy


The structure of Panama's economy in the twentieth century has been characterized by the dichotomy of a large internationally oriented services sector and a small inward-looking goods sector. The major change in that structure has been the rapid growth of the services sector. In 1950 services accounted for about 57 percent of GDP; that share rose to 63 percent in 1965 and to over 73 percent in 1985. Given Panama's geographic location, modern infrastructure, and an educated population trained in commercial and financial activity, services will likely remain the leading sector of the economy.

In contrast, the goods sector has declined in relative terms. Although efforts have been made to stimulate agriculture and industry -- and both registered substantial growth -- their share of GDP has fallen as that of the services sector has risen. In the late 1980s, one of the greatest challenges facing Panamanian policymakers was that of using the services sector as a springboard for growth, primarily in industry but also in agriculture.

During the Torrijos administration, the economy was stimulated in several areas. The principal stimulus to the services sector was banking, articularly offshore banking. Transportation also increased rapidly, along with expansion of the road network. Substantial investments were made in the communications system in an effort to meet international standards expected by the extensive network of foreign businesses. Storage and warehousing grew rapidly in response to the economy's own needs and particularly to the foreign business conducted in the CFZ.

Industrialization progressed rapidly after 1950, with industrial production rising from 10 percent of GDP in 1950 to 19 percent in 1965. This expansion was based primarily on import substitution. Industry continued to grow at an average annual rate of 5.9 percent from 1965 through 1980, but registered negative 2.2- percent average annual growth between 1980 and 1985.

As a result of the lack of growth as well as the rapid rise of the services sector, industrial production had dropped slightly as a percentage of GDP in 1985 -- to just under 18 percent. Manufacturing accounted for about half of the industrial sector, followed by construction, energy, and mining. Given the small size of the domestic market, observers believed that future industrial growth would rely primarily on foreign markets. Success, therefore, would depend to a large extent on Panama's ability to make its industry internationally oriented and competitive.

Although the agricultural sector continued to expand and to employ the largest number of workers, its share of GDP declined substantially, from 29 percent in 1950 to 18 percent in 1965 and about 9 percent in 1985. This sector grew at a respectable average annual rate of 2.4 percent between 1965 and 1980, and 2.7 percent between 1980 and 1985, but it could not keep pace with the rapid growth rate of the services sector. Bananas, shrimp, and sugar continued to lead the list of export items. The expansion of the agricultural sector hinged on exports and product diversification.

Data as of December 1987

Last Updated: December 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Panama was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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