Panama once again dominates The Banker's Top 100 Central American Banks ranking, though a new leader has emerged in the shape of Banco General. Silvia Pavoni reports.

Thanks to a substantial capital expansion, Banco General has climbed to the top of The Banker’s ranking of Central American banks, displacing compatriot BAC Panama. While BAC’s Tier 1 capital marginally shrank to $1.93bn, Banco General’s grew by more than 25% to $1.99bn.

As always, the frontrunners in the regional ranking hail from Panama, although some owe this status to foreign ownership. Following Banco General and BAC Panama come Bancolombia Panama and foreign trade specialist Bladex. Credit card specialist BAC Panama is part of Colombia’s Grupo Aval, the owner of Banco de Bogotá, while Bancolombia Panama belongs to Grupo Bancolombia.

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Panama's pole position

Panama dominates the rest of the list too, as 44 of the 100 banks are based there. On an aggregate basis, the country counts for more than half of the total Tier 1 capital and assets figures in the Central American ranking. It does well also on specific indicators, with Panamanian banks showing the best efficiency ratios in Central America, producing all bar one of the names in the top 10 cost-to-income ratio ranking, which is led by BCP Panama. It is worth noting that the overall regional leader, Banco General, also appears in the table, in 10th position, presenting a picture of both financial strength and operational efficiency.

The country’s banks also dominate by Tier 1 capital growth, assets growth and pre-tax profits growth, as well as return on capital. The return on capital table, however, offers a more varied scenario. It is led by Banco Azteca Honduras, followed by Banco Azteca Guatemala, both part of Mexico’s Grupo Salinas.

Panamanian lenders perform relatively well when it comes to profitability too, as pre-tax profits for half of the top 10 banks in the country have expanded.

As the data refers to the end of 2016 (the latest available), slower economic growth that year might explain this mixed performance. Gross domestic product growth in Panama has indeed dropped from the 2011 peak of 11.8%. Conditions, however, have begun to pick up and the World Bank estimates that Panama’s economy grew by more than 5% in 2017 and will continue to expand in 2018 and 2019.

Best of the rest

The second and third largest markets in Central America by both Tier 1 capital and assets are Costa Rica and Guatemala. Costa Rica’s highest scoring lender, Banco Popular, is fifth in the regional ranking, while Banco Nacional de Costa Rica and Banco de Costa Rica are 10th and 11th, respectively. Guatemala’s top bank, Banco Industrial, is seventh, while its two highest scoring national peers, Banrural and Banco G&T Continental, are a respective ninth and 13th place.

Belize and Nicaragua are the smallest banking markets in Central America but their lenders have performed well. All four Nicaraguan names that made the regional list also feature in the top 10 banks by return on assets, with Banco Produzcamos in third place in that table. Scotiabank Belize also appears in the return on assets top 10, in seventh place, and is one of only three lenders from the country to appear in the regional list.

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