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Which Economic Variables Really Matter for Stocks?

November 12, 2018 • Posted in Economic Indicators

Which economic variables are most important for predicting stock returns? In their October 2018 paper entitled “Sparse Macro Factors”, David Rapach and Guofu Zhou apply machine learning to isolate via sparse principal component analysis (PCA) which of 120 economic variables from the FRED-MD database most influence stocks. These variables span output/income, labor market, housing, consumption, orders/inventories, money/credit, yields/exchange rates and inflation. As a preliminary step, they adjust raw economic variables by, where necessary: (1) transforming them to produce stationary series; (2) adjusting for reporting lags of one or two months. They next execute sparse PCA, which sets small component weights to zero, thereby facilitating interpretation of results without sacrificing much predictive power. For comparison, they also extract the first 10 conventional principal components from the same variables. Finally, they use 202 stock portfolios to estimate the influence of sparse and conventional principal components on the cross section of stock returns. Using monthly data for the 120 economic variables and 202 stock portfolios during February 1960 through June 2018, they find that:

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