For about a year now, Panama has debated decentralized government. It will use property taxes to assist local city councils in this endeavour. Resistance to change has been very vocal, especially as scaremongering occurred: You will lose your homes. If you fail to pay your property taxes, your home will be taken from you. This is just another measure of expropriation. At the end of August, Bill 509 was sent back to first debate for re-drafting after a public outcry. It went through a lengthy second debate. Last night, Bill 509 was approved by the legislature in its third debate. It now awaits signing into law by the President, Juan Carlos Varela. We expect it to be sanctioned by the President and published, as there is no pressure for veto or further debate.
Bill 509 – 2017
The principal debate centered on an article removing the tax exemptions enjoyed by Free Trade Zones. “Free Trade Zones” refers to Processing Zones, Baru, Colon FTZ, and Panama Pacifico. Most of the Chambers of Commerce in Panama objected to modifying their tax treatment. They alleged it is important to have legal certainty for foreign investors. Although these changes were forward looking, they modify all of the special laws which had established these Free Zones. A key concern is investment: private investors in infrastructure will be scared away if changes are made. The Free Trade Zones have been hit hard in recent years by other economic factors, some of which have decimated sectors of the business.
For home owners, however, Bill 509 promises a large reduction in property taxes. In some cases, a reduction down to 0%. For most, the reduction will be 75%, and for some of the higher valued properties, only a 50% reduction. As it stands, Bill 509 establishes the following tax rates for primary family residences:
- 0% for homes valued under $120,000.00
- 0.5% for homes valued between $120,000 and $700,000
- 0.7% for homes valued over $700,000.00
These new tax rates apply as of January 1, 2019. This is because before that date, property owners must present to the Tax Department their affidavits regarding this being their “primary residence” or “family home”, to establish it as the residence that receives these new rates.
However, a property owner with more than one property, will be eligible for these new tax rates only on their primary residence. The following rates apply to weekend or holiday homes, investment, rental, commercial or industrial properties:
- 0% – less than $30,000 (this stays the same)
- 0.6% for properties valued between $30,000 to $250,000
- 0.8% fo properties valued between $250,000 to $500,000
- 1.0% for properties valued over $500,000.00
Even for properties in the highest bracket, this is a reduction from the highest existing tax rate on properties of 2.1%.
Bill 509: improved collections
One of the changes that Bill 509 introduces that will assist with collections is that it appoints banks & mortgage financing companies as tax collectors. This does not apply to first time home buyers, but does apply for all other purchasers. Banks will add the property taxes due to the monthly fees, interest and principal calculated and will include the tax in the monthly payments. The bank will then remit the property taxes to the respective tax office.
Bill 509 also establishes that there will be no appraisals carried out on property values until 2024, allowing 5 years at current property values. Nevertheless, I would expect that after 2024, there is a general move by the tax department to get updated appraisals on all properties for the purpose of collections.
Good news: Moratorium
For anyone that owes property taxes, the good news is that there is a moratorium until December 31, 2017 to get up to date. This moratorium ensures that you only pay the actual taxes that you owe – they are writing off the interest and penalties if you pay all of the property taxes that are owed. For some property owners, this will be thousands of dollars in savings.
Gray & Co. will provide an update once the law has been sanctioned & published. We are also available to assist clients in getting up to date with the payment of their property taxes, taking full advantage of the moratorium that is being offered.
In 2018, our office will be available to assist clients in registering their primary residence under this new law in order to take advantage of the new tax rates.
It would seem that drafting and knowing how to write is everything. A better draft or ability to write clearly could have avoided many problems. At the beginning of September, there was furor among Panamanian professionals. The Ministry of Commerce published a resolution authorizing Multinational companies to hire foreign professionals… or so they said. I read headlines such as: “Opening to foreign professionals will impact the middle class”. The negotiations regarding TiSA (Trade in Services Agreement, a proposed international trade treaty) caused this furor, particularly with Panama’s measures to qualify. Panama participates in the TiSA negotiations with 23 members of the WTO. These negotiations continue in December 2017, after being stalled by the US.
Multinational – requirements for headquarters in Panama
The licensing commission for Multinational Company Headquarters issued a resolution for Multinationals. This resolution indicated the new qualifying requirements. One of the requirements is to have 2,500 professionally qualified employees. However, this resolution indicated that said professionals needed to be qualified in their countries of origin, without needing to be verified by respective professional boards in Panama. Specifically, this resolution indicated that the foreigner would be considered qualified if they had a Bachelor’s Degree, a Master’s Degree or Doctorate, or were duly licensed to practice in their qualifying country. The reactions from professional guilds were hat this would affect not only the working class, but also the middle class.
This discussion seemed to miss the purpose of the requirements entirely. Multinationals are not required to have 2,500 professionally qualified employees in Panama in order to qualify. They must have 2,500 professionals in their offices, worldwide, in order to qualify. It is therefore obvious that such professionals would be duly qualified in their respective nations, and not Panamanian nationals. The second major requirements is a capitalization of 200 million US dollars. The new resolution sought to establish that for those multinationals that did not qualify with a consolidated capital of 200 million, they could qualify if they had the 2,500 professionals worldwide. After reviewing the wording of the resolution, Panaman’s Law Society (Colegio Nacional de Abogados) requested that it be redrafted.
Foreign professionals in Panama
Panama is a small market: we have a population of only 3.9 million (depending on which day of the week you count). This means that the professional workforce also has its limitations when there is unexpected growth in some industries. Studies have shown that Panama does need foreign professionals to meet these labor needs. Official sources indicate that Panama lacks some 159,000 specialized professionals for the needs of the country. But there is also resistance to allowing foreign professionals to come work in Panama, with the fear that “they will steal all the good jobs”.
Of course, for the executives and employees of Multinationals who have qualified under the special licensing rules: there are special rules and exceptions. It is possible for a multinational company to hire a professional, duly qualified to do the job internationally, have them working in Panama, and they simply are not allowed to sign off on documents in Panama (i.e. a lawyer could work in-house for a multinational, but would need a Panamanian lawyer to sign off on any legal documents for Panama).
Salaries in Panama
It is important to understand the idiosyncrasies of the Panamanian labor market. Salaries for highly qualified jobs pay less than in North America or Europe. Executives of the multinationals are among the highest paid employees in Panama: these jobs are highly coveted. English and Spanish are essential: for working internationally and locally in Panama. One of the biggest constraints to foreign employment is the 10% and 15% limits established for work permits and immigration: a Panamanian company can only have 10% maximum of its workforce (averaged out over salaries, not just the number of employees) as foreigners. For highly technical staff or experts in a field, this increases to 15%. Additionally, some professions are exclusively reserved for Panamanians: for example, medicine, dentistry, nutrition, pharmacy, accounting, psychology, architecture, journalism, and law.
The minimum wage in Panama is between $500.00 to $700.00 (lower for some areas of the economy, such as domestic help). Normal working hours are 8-hour days (9 hours including lunch hour) and overtime for more than this. Additionally, there are special rules regarding shifts starting or ending before 6.00 a.m. or 6 p.m., and there are not rules regarding flexi-time (which basically ensures that employers avoid it, because the Labor Code specifies that the employee is always right). So, if you had an employee that worked 12 hours Monday and then 4 hours Tuesday and they alleged that 4 hours of the time worked on Monday was overtime, the employer could be liable to pay this. There are companies working with flexi-time, but it is outside of the archaic constructs of the Labor Code.
Real costs versus “salary”:
Additionally, Panama offers 30 days (calendar, not working) holiday pay each year and additionally pays the 13th month. When you calculate the cost of an employee (contingent liabilities plus Social Security costs), you should expect this to cost about 1.41 times the actual declared salary. So an employee earning $600.00 a month, with contingent liabilities calculated, costs about $850.00 a month. An employee earning $700.00 a month costs the company about $1,000.00 a month, with contingent liabilities. These are rough estimates.
According to figures released in August 2017, the following are average salaries:
- $2,435.00 – Multinationals
- $1,085.00 – Mining companies
- $1,063.00 – Education (includes universities & private training)
- $1,029.00 – Doctors, medicine & health
- $985.00 – Finance (banking sector)
- $681.00 – Average monthly salary
Of course, as mentioned, these are the averages.
On the 12th of September, the same MICI office that had issued the “problematic” resolution mentioning 2,500 foreign professionals, issued a new resolution. This resolution left the previous one without effect, and presented different requirements for Multinationals wishing to be established in Panama.
These requirements are:
- capital of 200 million USD or more
- presence in 40 countries or more
There is no mention in the new resolution of the number of foreign professionals working for the multinational. The new resolution is Resolution No. 20-17 (Sept. 11, 2017).
For more information regarding the requirements to establish Multinational offices in Panama or for foreign professionals to work in Panama, please do not hesitate to contact our office.
AML rules & enforcement
In July 2017 the Indendance for the Supervision & Regulation of Non-Financial Persons adopted resolution JD-REG-001-17. This resolution sets the procedures for onsite inspections, reviewing procedures and documentation for compliance with Law 23 (2015).
As explained in a previous post, Law 23 set up the Intendance and regulated the types of businesses and professionals supervised by the Intendance. This included companies in the Free Trade Zones and Panama Pacífico. Likewise, it included real estate developers, realtors, lawyers & accountants. In particular, Law23 adopts measures to prevent money laundering and financing of terrorism. Article 13 of the Law charges the Intendance with supervising and regulating “non financial persons”.
Artice 13 of Executive Decree 361 (2015), adopted following Law 23 (2015), establishes that as part of supervising, the Intendance will carry out onsite inspections of these non financial persons. It also provides for off site inspections, where there is simply delivery of documentation and reports to the Intendance’s office. The intendance requires access to relevant and pertinent information in order to measure the effectiveness of the controls put in place. This is particularly important in higher risk business models, to ensure compliance. With this in mind, the Intendance established in JD-REG-001-17 the guidelines for requesting information or documents as part of inspections.
In order to undertaken an inspection, whether onsite or offsite, the Intendance must notify in writing. The time frame for the inspection, the scope and the documentation or information being requested are required in the letter. It must also indicate the format to be used (if applicable).
The person or entity under inspection must deliver the information or documentation by the dates required, in the requested format. Originals, copies, electronic format or any other means of delivery must allow the intendance to get a clear and real view of the situation the transactions being supervised. The intendance may request documents be translated to Spanish.
Late & incomplete compliance
Compliance which is provided late or not at all will be considered to have failed to comply. If the information or documentation requrest is incomplete, illegible or in a format different to the one requested, sanctions may also apply.
Costs of inspection
At this time, we have no idea of what the actual cost of inspections will be, although it is understood that the Intendance (similar to the Banking Superintendent) charges the entities that are under supervision for doing onsite inspections. They are charged for the manpower required to be in their offices for the time spent there. Other indirect costs are space, internet & phone connections that must be provided, and the staff that need to be assigned to assist and provide the inhouse documentation that is being inspected and reviewed.
Our firm is able to assist with compliance manuals, preparation of policies and procedures and preparation for such inspections.