The following article was published in the 24 September 2007 issue of Barron's, one of America's most respected journals of finance and investment. Access to the original webpage at Barron's requires a paid subscription. They were kind enough to allow me to republish it here, with the permission of Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
A New Life in Panama?
By Bob Adams
IT WAS JANUARY OF 2006 AND COLEY WAS 39. He had written and asked if he and his friend Jon could talk to me about their idea of setting up an investment operation in Panama to work the Central American region on behalf of U.S. investors. So there I was sitting in a local restaurant, surprised that two young professionals with young families were seriously thinking of quitting their well-paid positions in the U.S. to start a business a few thousand miles away. Today, they are the owners of Latin American Venture Partners, successfully living with their families and working from their offices in Panama.
I've lived and worked overseas for four decades and have traveled to more than forty nations. My interest in moving to Panama was not related to retirement, though some retirement Websites that focus on Panama introduced me to the country.
After visiting and getting to know Panama, I appreciated that most of these Websites provided very little real information. So I set up my own Website, RetirementWave.com, to offer a view of the country without any commercial motivation. I saw it as a simple public service and I didn't waste any money promoting it.
I would have been happy to help a few dozen people get a clearer idea of the country; 200,000 visitors and 2,700 members later, I find myself with an unpaid job that takes a lot more of my attention than I ever imagined. The real surprise, though, is that more than 20% of my "Retirement Wave" members are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They are not thinking in terms of retirement. They are interested in relocating to or investing in Panama.
They are part of a silent emigration of Americans, retirees and more, seeking to live and work in other nations -- and not just the wealthy nations of Europe.
How many? A State Department survey of its embassies and consulates in 1999 suggested a total of 4.1 million Americans living overseas at that point, but there's little good data. So my company, New Global Initiatives Inc., hired Zogby International to do surveys of adult Americans on the subject of relocation outside the U.S. With more than 115,000 respondents, we have the largest and, as far as we know, the only database on this topic.
We didn't focus on Panama or Central America; we collected information on every global destination. In refining our survey results, we first eliminated anyone relocating for less than two years, and anyone relocating because of the requirements of the government, the military or their jobs. We did include people who are not relocating but are seriously considering purchasing a vacation home or other property outside the U.S. This group is likely to include many who will later choose to relocate.
These results project the results of the surveys onto the entire U.S. population. The numbers are for households, not individuals.
- 1.6 million U.S. households have already made the decision to relocate. That figure has remained stable over the year and a half during which seven surveys were conducted.
- Another 1.8 million households are seriously considering relocation and are likely to do it.
- 7.7 million households are "somewhat seriously" considering relocation and "may" do it.
- Nearly 3 million households are seriously considering the purchase of a vacation home or other property outside the U.S., and another 10 million are "somewhat" seriously considering it.
Adding it up, almost 10% of U.S. households are looking at leaving the country, and another 10% are considering living outside the country part time. This silent emigration is ignored by nearly every population analyst.
These would-be emigrant households plan to spend an average of $260,000 on the purchase or construction of a house, and they plan to spend at least $36,000 annually on living expenses outside the U.S. In total, they represent the emigration of hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the U.S. economy.
The largest group actually having made the decision to relocate is in the households where the adults are 25 to 34 years old. Blame it on outdated 20th-century thinking, but I assumed this age group would be too busy establishing families and career paths to pull up stakes and move out of the country. Wrong. When it comes to a serious interest in buying a property outside the U.S., that youthful age group dominates. A lot of Americans are at various stages of considering relocation or buying property overseas, but the 25-34 age group is the one putting down the bucks to do it.
There will be plenty of social, economic, political and plain old-fashioned business consequences to this silent migration. The cost to the American economy could be more than just financial: Young Americans push new ideas into society. They build new companies and create new jobs. Stay-at-home Americans will be poorer without them, unless the country keeps the emigrants connected to the U.S., supports them and gets benefits from their movement into the new global culture.
BOB ADAMS is CEO of New Global Initiatives, a consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., that specializes in advice about emerging markets.
Copyright © 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY FROM BOB ADAMS
The version finally published above was about a third shorter than the original, itself shortened from what was originally intended. When you write for any print publication, you are required to write within the space limitations of the upcoming issue. As a result, you often can't provide all the information and commentary that you would like. In addition, as I described a few weeks ago in the "Continuing Journal" section of this site, any article is really a collaboration between the writer and the editor concerned. As I said in the Journal, "An editor is not a proofreader." So it is that detail may be lost, but my editor at Barron's is very good at what he does and I am always pleased to work with him.
There are two reactions nearly everyone has when first presented with the results of our surveys of adult Americans. The first reaction is surprise at the sheer number of Americans considering relocation or property purchase outside the US. 5% they could understand, but more than 20% really surprises, even shocks, them. Some of my European friends had an opposite reaction. Only 1.4% are actually planning to relocate? To them, that was a low number. As we know from another study reported by Britain's BBC, nearly 10% of all British citizens have already relocated outside the UK and more seem determined to follow them. However, the comparison is not quite appropriate.
The US is the third-largest nation in the world, following Russia and Canada. Indeed, if you don't include lakes and other waterways, the US edges out Canada in actual land area. It is geographically very fortunate. The US has desert, glaciers, rainforests, massive mountain ranges, wide expanses of flat land, and pretty much any climate zone from frigid to tropical. Americans can find a radically different place to live than where they are now without having to leave the US. As I told a British friend, "If you're British and you want to find warm weather year-round either as a regular home or a vacation home, you have to leave Britain. Americans can go to southern California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, with parts of other states as well." The idea that tens of millions of Americans are actually thinking of relocating or buying homes outside the country is the basis for the surprise, which leads me to the second reaction.
Why? Specifically referring to those who want to relocate, why do these people want to leave the US? People almost invariably provide me with their answer to this question before I have a chance to respond, myself. I've learned to sit and wait now because I know that their "reason" will not be based on any empirical evidence or analysis, but instead reflect their own personal feelings. Whether the response relates to quality of life, politics, the cost of living or some other specific issue, it will almost certainly be an issue that concerns the person I'm talking to. Usually, the reason is negative. The assumption is that Americans are trying to "escape" something.
Well, I can tell you that all those issues are real for some relocators. There are plenty of others too that are far more positive; the majority of them, in fact. The search for adventure and new experiences is a powerful motivator to many. However, I would suggest that the fundamental reason is quite simple and age-old. I base this not simply on the surveys, but my experience talking to Americans, Canadians, Europeans and others living outside their home nations over the past 40+ years of my professional work that has taken me to so many corners of this world.
Humans are mobile and they take advantage of it. There is an old saying in English that people search for "greener pastures". The last fifteen years or so has seen a huge increase in the amount of new "pastureland" available. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the opening of China alone have done that. But it's more. Not only is more pastureland available, it's more accessible. Finally, there has been a huge transfer of wealth from the traditional "powers" of North America and Europe to the rest of the world. So not only is there more pasture available and readily accessible, more of it is greener than ever before.
I cannot even begin to describe the incredible changes I have witnessed globally. Nations (Panama included) that were considered very uncomfortable and lacking in services and other amenities in years past now offer lifestyles far closer to those of the old powers than I could have imagined 20, 30, certainly 40 years ago. Frankly, the last five years alone have astounded me.
To many of us, these nations now offer far more comfortable lifestyles than we have at home, wherever home may be. As regular readers at Retirement Wave know, it's not just a matter of North Americans and Europeans on the move. Everyone is on the move. As I write, Panama is undoubtedly welcoming yet another group of Venezuelan arrivals to join the thousands that have already arrived. They will join dozens of nationalities who have come before. More and more nations that were once mono-cultural are becoming multi-cultural and not as a result of design, but as a result of folks from everywhere looking for greener pastures.
It is my belief that future historians will look back at the early decades of the 21st century and refer to them as the "Age of Migration". I'm delighted to be a part of that future history today.
Bob was interviewed by Erin Burnett of CNBC's "Street Signs" on the Barron's article. If you like, you can see a video of the interview.