IDENTITY CRISIS

Panama 2017 | FINANCE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Rolando J. de León de Alba, General Manager of Banco Nacional de Panama, on corruption, agrobusiness, and rolling out the “electronic wallet" program.

How would you assess the development of the banking and financial sector in Panama?

It was a challenging year for Panama in 2016. First we had the “Panama Papers," and later we had the Waked Group situation. Panama just got off the GAFI grey list. We were in a great position to recover everything that had to do with our legislature in terms of money laundering and counter-terrorism. We need to continue to work with our international partners to protect the integrity of the Panamanian system. Panama has taken many steps to promote transparency, fairness, and compliance with the standards set by GAFI and the OECD. That is where the country made the biggest improvement this year. Then, the Waked crisis came and had a negative impact on the country's image. When something like this happens, it threatens the stability of the system. Fortunately, we were able to come up with a solution working in accordance with our partners in the US. The banking system in Panama is continuing to grow while. Local banks had to establish stronger reserves in order to comply with current regulations from the Superintendency of Banks. That has forced financial institutions to be more responsible and prudent. We have no Central Bank here and do not have a discount window, which makes our banks very conservative in the way they conduct business.

BNP investment in the Agrosector exceeds USD500 million. What is the potential of this segment, and how are you fostering its growth?

We have a particular commitment to the agricultural sector and need to achieve sovereignty with regard to the production of our own food. Panama has the potential to produce its own resources for its people. We need to show the agricultural sector that they can use the land if they get the conditions they need. We have the money to do it, and the bank has put over USD500 million into the sector. What we would like to do in 2017 is study every potential agricultural product that can be produced in Panama. We are achieving a separate policy for each product and identifying the conditions that need to be met in order to finance the production of a particular product and then offer that to potential clients and investors. This is the way to take the primary sector and put it on a different level. We have been portraying Panama as a service-based country, but we do not want to forget about the primary sector.

How are you applying innovation to your daily operations?

We are working right now on getting the first electronic wallet in Panama. The average here is 2.2 cellphones per person. Cellular coverage is almost 100%. We have areas in which people do not have access to financial services like an ATM or bank branch, but they have a cell phone. This has been a solution that has been successful in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We want to bring it here as well, first by integrating people who do not have a bank account and promoting economic activity between them. The way to create something out of this is to enhance business among those groups of people, and the electronic wallet is a useful resource for doing that.

Can you elaborate on the bank's CSR policy?

Inclusion and integration are part of our DNA. We need to share the wealth. This country is a prosperous country in the service sector, but we need to share the wealth better with our people, which means integrating people into the system. In order to promote and help other financial institutions focus on inclusion, we want to foster SMEs. There is a large portion of the economy that is very informal, and these people have the potential to become better entrepreneurs. I have seen that in other countries in Latin America. We have the technology and connectivity, but need to train people to use resources and have a clearer view of what they are doing to manage their finances and promote their own businesses. That is the level of integration we aim for and want to be part of.

What are your main targets for 2017?

The promotion of the electronic wallet is one of our main targets. We also need to cover areas of the country that still have no access to financial services. We have promoted a new set of branches for the bank all over the country, not only to provide services but also to identify potential economic areas that need the presence of a bank, the government, and private institutions to create an ecosystem. The bank will be the first stone on which this is built. We have 30 different projects. This includes new branches, the remodeling of current branches, and the relocation of other offices. We would like to accomplish these goals between now and 2019. We have a chart on which we can identify each day in order to follow up each step. We have spoken with the president about this and he is very interested in this matter. He wants to create these new pockets of economic activity. The third thing we want to achieve is the reformation of an organic law that needs to be in accordance with the new regulations. In early 2017, we are going to the assembly to promote this. We need to achieve it because this bank is growing, and we need more board members on the corporate governance side. We need at least seven members according to current regulation, though currently just have five.