Category Archives: accuracy of forecasts

Partial Least Squares and Principal Components

I’ve run across outstanding summaries of “partial least squares” (PLS) research recently – for example Rosipal and Kramer’s Overview and Recent Advances in Partial Least Squares and the 2010 Handbook of Partial Least Squares.

Partial least squares (PLS) evolved somewhat independently from related statistical techniques, owing to what you might call family connections. The technique was first developed by Swedish statistician Herman Wold and his son, Svante Wold, who applied the method in particular to chemometrics. Rosipal and Kramer suggest that the success of PLS in chemometrics resulted in a lot of applications in other scientific areas including bioinformatics, food research, medicine, [and] pharmacology..

Someday, I want to look into “path modeling” with PLS, but for now, let’s focus on the comparison between PLS regression and principal component (PC) regression. This post develops a comparison with Matlab code and macroeconomics data from Mark Watson’s website at Princeton.

The Basic Idea Behind PC and PLS Regression

Principal component and partial least squares regression share a couple of features.

Both, for example, offer an approach or solution to the problem of “many predictors” and multicollinearity. Also, with both methods, computation is not transparent, in contrast to ordinary least squares (OLS). Both PC and PLS regression are based on iterative or looping algorithms to extract either the principal components or underlying PLS factors and factor loadings.

PC Regression

The first step in PC regression is to calculate the principal components of the data matrix X. This is a set of orthogonal (which is to say completely uncorrelated) vectors which are weighted sums of the predictor variables in X.

This is an iterative process involving transformation of the variance-covariance or correlation matrix to extract the eigenvalues and eigenvectors.

Then, the data matrix X is multiplied by the eigenvectors to obtain the new basis for the data – an orthogonal basis. Typically, the first few (the largest) eigenvalues – which explain the largest proportion of variance in X – and their associated eigenvectors are used to produce one or more principal components which are regressed onto Y. This involves a dimensionality reduction, as well as elimination of potential problems of multicollinearity.

PLS Regression

The basic idea behind PLS regression, on the other hand, is to identify latent factors which explain the variation in both Y and X, then use these factors, which typically are substantially fewer in number than k, to predict Y values.

Clearly, just as in PC regression, the acid test of the model is how it performs on out-of-sample data.

The reason why PLS regression often outperforms PC regression, thus, is that factors which explain the most variation in the data matrix may not, at the same time, explain the most variation in Y. It’s as simple as that.

Matlab example

I grabbed some data from Mark Watson’s website at Princeton — from the links to a recent paper called Generalized Shrinkage Methods for Forecasting Using Many Predictors (with James H. Stock), Journal of Business and Economic Statistics, 30:4 (2012), 481-493.Download Paper (.pdf). Download Supplement (.pdf), Download Data and Replication Files (.zip). The data include the following variables, all expressed as year-over-year (yoy) growth rates: The first variable – real GDP – is taken as the forecasting target. The time periods of all other variables are lagged one period (1 quarter) behind the quarterly values of this target variable.


Matlab makes calculation of both principal component and partial least squares regressions easy.

The command to extract principal components is

[coeff, score, latent]=princomp(X)

Here X the data matrix, and the entities in the square brackets are vectors or matrices produced by the algorithm. It’s possible to compute a principal components regression with the contents of the matrix score. Generally, the first several principal components are selected for the regression, based on the importance of a component or its associated eigenvalue in latent. The following scree chart illustrates the contribution of the first few principal components to explaining the variance in X.


The relevant command for regression in Matlab is


where b is the column vector of estimated coefficients and the first six principal components are used in place of the X predictor variables.

The Matlab command for a partial least square regresssion is

[XL,YL,XS,YS,beta] = plsregress(X,Y,ncomp)

where ncomp is the number of latent variables of components to be utilized in the regression. There are issues of interpreting the matrices and vectors in the square brackets, but I used this code –

data=xlsread(‘stock.xls’); X=data(1:47,2:79); y = data(2:48,1);

[XL,yl,XS,YS,beta] = plsregress(X,y,10); yfit = [ones(size(X,1),1) X]*beta;

lookPLS=[y yfit]; ZZ=data(48:50,2:79);newy=data(49:51,1);

new=[ones(3,1) ZZ]*beta; out=[newy new];

The bottom line is to test the estimates of the response coefficients on out-of-sample data.

The following chart shows that PLS outperforms PC, although the predictions of both are not spectacularly accurate.



There are nuances to what I have done which help explain the dominance of PLS in this situation, as well as the weakly predictive capabilities of both approaches.

First, the target variable is quarterly year-over-year growth of real US GDP. The predictor set X contains 78 other macroeconomic variables, all expressed in terms of yoy (year-over-year) percent changes.

Again, note that the time period of all the variables or observations in X are lagged one quarter from the values in Y, or the values or yoy quarterly percent growth of real US GDP.

This means that we are looking for a real, live leading indicator. Furthermore, there are plausibly common factors in the Y series shared with at least some of the X variables. For example, the percent changes of a block of variables contained in real GDP are included in X, and by inspection move very similarly with the target variable.

Other Example Applications

There are at least a couple of interesting applied papers in the Handbook of Partial Least Squares – a downloadable book in the Springer Handbooks of Computational Statistics. See –

Chapter 20 A PLS Model to Study Brand Preference: An Application to the Mobile Phone Market

Chapter 22 Modeling the Impact of Corporate Reputation on Customer Satisfaction and Loyalty Using Partial Least Squares

Another macroeconomics application from the New York Fed –

“Revisiting Useful Approaches to Data-Rich Macroeconomic Forecasting”

Finally, the software company XLStat has a nice, short video on partial least squares regression applied to a marketing example.

The Accuracy of Macroeconomics Forecasts – Survey of Professional Forecasters

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank maintains historic records of macroeconomic forecasts from the Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF). These provide an outstanding opportunity to assess forecasting accuracy in macroeconomics.

For example, in 2014, what is the chance the “steady as she goes” forecast from the current SPF is going to miss a downturn 1, 2, or 3 quarters into the future?

1-Quarter-Ahead Forecast Performance on Real GDP

Here is a chart I’ve ginned up for a 1-quarter ahead performance of the SPF forecasts of real GDP since 1990.


The blue line is the forecast growth rate for real GDP from the SPF on a 1-quarter-ahead basis. The red line is the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) final number for the growth rate for the relevant quarters. The growth rates in both instances are calculated on a quarter-over-quarter basis and annualized.

Side-stepping issues regarding BEA revisions, I used BEA final numbers for the level and growth of real GDP by quarter. This may not completely fair to the SPF forecasters, but it is the yardstick SPF is usually judged by its “consumers.”

Forecast errors for the 1-quarter-ahead forecasts, calculated on this basis, average about 2 percent in absolute value.

They also exhibit significant first order autocorrelation, as is readily suggested by the chart above. So, the SPF tends to under-predict during expansion phases of the business cycle and over-predict during contraction phases.

Currently, the SPF 2014:Q1 forecast for 2014:Q2 is for 3.0 percent real growth of GDP, so maybe it’s unlikely that an average error for this forecast would result in actual 2014:Q2 growth dipping into negative territory.

2-Quarter-Ahead Forecast Performance on Real GDP

Errors for the 2-quarter-ahead SPF forecast, judged against BEA final numbers for real GDP growth, only rise to about 2.14 percent.

However, I am interested in more than the typical forecast error associated with forecasts of real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on a 1-, 2-, or 3- quarter ahead forecast horizon.

Rather, I’m curious whether the SPF is likely to catch a
downturn over these forecast horizons, given that one will occur.

So if we just look at recessions in this period, in 2001, 2002-2003, and 2008-2009, the performance significantly deteriorates. This can readily be seen in the graph for 1-quarter-ahead forecast errors shown above in 2008 when the consensus SPF forecast indicated a slight recovery for real GDP in exactly the quarter it totally tanked.

Bottom Line

In general, the SPF records provide vivid documentation of the difficulty of predicting turning points in key macroeconomic time series, such as GDP, consumer spending, investment, and so forth. At the same time, the real-time macroeconomic databases provided alongside the SPF records offer interesting opportunities for second- and third-guessing both the experts and the agencies responsible for charting US macroeconomics.

Additional Background

The Survey of Professional Forecasters is the oldest quarterly survey of macroeconomic forecasts in the United States. It dates back to 1968, when it was conducted by the American Statistical Association and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). In 1990, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia assumed responsibility, and, today, devotes a special section on its website to the SPF, as well “Historical SPF Forecast Data.”

Current and recent contributors to the SPF include “celebrity forecasters” highlighted in other posts here, as well as bank-associated and university-affiliated forecasters.

The survey’s timing is geared to the release of the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ advance report of the national income and product accounts. This report is released at the end of the first month of each quarter. It contains the first estimate of GDP (and components) for the previous quarter. Survey questionnaires are sent after this report is released to the public. The survey’s questionnaires report recent historical values of the data from the BEA’s advance report and the most recent reports of other government statistical agencies. Thus, in submitting their projections, panelists’ information includes data reported in the advance report.

Recent participants include:

Lewis Alexander, Nomura Securities; Scott Anderson, Bank of the West (BNP Paribas Group); Robert J. Barbera, Johns Hopkins University Center for Financial Economics; Peter Bernstein, RCF Economic and Financial Consulting, Inc.; Christine Chmura, Ph.D. and Xiaobing Shuai, Ph.D., Chmura Economics & Analytics; Gary Ciminero, CFA, GLC Financial Economics; Julia Coronado, BNP Paribas; David Crowe, National Association of Home Builders; Nathaniel Curtis, Navigant; Rajeev Dhawan, Georgia State University; Shawn Dubravac, Consumer Electronics Association; Gregory Daco, Oxford Economics USA, Inc.; Michael R. Englund, Action Economics, LLC; Timothy Gill, NEMA; Matthew Hall and Daniil Manaenkov, RSQE, University of Michigan; James Glassman, JPMorgan Chase & Co.; Jan Hatzius, Goldman Sachs; Peter Hooper, Deutsche Bank Securities, Inc.; IHS Global Insight; Fred Joutz, Benchmark Forecasts and Research Program on Forecasting, George Washington University; Sam Kahan, Kahan Consulting Ltd. (ACT Research LLC); N. Karp, BBVA Compass; Walter Kemmsies, Moffatt & Nichol; Jack Kleinhenz, Kleinhenz & Associates, Inc.; Thomas Lam, OSK-DMG/RHB; L. Douglas Lee, Economics from Washington; Allan R. Leslie, Economic Consultant; John Lonski, Moody’s Capital Markets Group; Macroeconomic Advisers, LLC; Dean Maki, Barclays Capital; Jim Meil and Arun Raha, Eaton Corporation; Anthony Metz, Pareto Optimal Economics; Michael Moran, Daiwa Capital Markets America; Joel L. Naroff, Naroff Economic Advisors; Michael P. Niemira, International Council of Shopping Centers; Luca Noto, Anima Sgr; Brendon Ogmundson, BC Real Estate Association; Martin A. Regalia, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Philip Rothman, East Carolina University; Chris Rupkey, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ; John Silvia, Wells Fargo; Allen Sinai, Decision Economics, Inc.; Tara M. Sinclair, Research Program on Forecasting, George Washington University; Sean M. Snaith, Ph.D., University of Central Florida; Neal Soss, Credit Suisse; Stephen Stanley, Pierpont Securities; Charles Steindel, New Jersey Department of the Treasury; Susan M. Sterne, Economic Analysis Associates, Inc.; Thomas Kevin Swift, American Chemistry Council; Richard Yamarone, Bloomberg, LP; Mark Zandi, Moody’s Analytics.