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Monday, April 25, 2011

Proposed U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement and Potential Employment Effects: Analysis of Studies

Mary Jane Bolle
Specialist in International Trade and Finance

James K. Jackson
Specialist in International Trade and Finance

The Obama Administration finalized negotiations with South Korea in early December 2010 on a bilateral free trade agreement. As a result, the administration is expected to submit implementing legislation to the 112th Congress on the proposed agreement, but to date has not indicated a timeline for doing so. The 112th Congress may also be asked to consider implementing legislation for proposed free trade agreements with Columbia and Panama. Congress not only plays a direct role in approving legislation that implements the provisions of free trade agreements, but also authorizes and appropriates funding for programs that are meant to provide special assistance to firms and workers that are dislocated as a result of lower barriers to trade. Since the proposed agreement covers a wide range of trade and investment issues, it could have substantial economic implications for both the United States and South Korea. South Korea is the seventh-largest trading partner of the United States, and the United States is South Korea’s third-largest trading partner.

Similar to other trade agreements, the proposed U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA) has attracted both supporters and detractors, primarily over the impact the agreement could have on employment in the economy. Supporters argue that the agreement could create as many as 280,000 jobs in the economy. Others, however, argue that the agreement could lead to an overall loss of up to 159,000 jobs in various sectors of the economy. Still others contend that the United States stands to lose exports, employment, and extended economic opportunities if it fails to sign a trade agreement, while the European Union and other nations are lining up to finalize similar agreements with South Korea.

Estimating the economic impact of trade agreements, however, is a daunting task, due to a lack of data and important theoretical and practical matters associated with generating results from economic models. In addition, such estimates provide an incomplete accounting of the total economic effects of trade agreements. This report assesses the results of a number of models that are being used to generate estimates of the effect of the KORUS FTA on employment. These studies were chosen specifically because they estimate (or can be used to estimate) data on employment effects of the trade agreement. All economic models incorporate various assumptions that are necessary in order for the model to generate results. Invariably, these approaches determine, to some extent, the results that are generated and, therefore, limit their representation of the real world economy. Currently, the various models produce widely disparate estimates of the number of jobs affected by the trade agreement, reflecting the various assumptions that are used in the models and differences in the approaches.

From the perspective of a large open economy such as the U.S. economy, international trade is not a major determinate of total employment in the economy, real wages in the economy, or the overall level of production. This is especially true for bilateral trade agreements with individual countries where the impact on the economy as a whole is expected to be small. Nevertheless, some sectors of the economy are likely to be affected more than others. Congress has demonstrated an ongoing interest in assessing the economic impact of trade agreements and, at times, has provided assistance to those workers and firms that are disproportionately affected.

Date of Report: April 11, 2011
Number of Pages: 27
Order Number: R41660
Price: $29.95

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