Can cointegration analysis solve spurious regression problem?

The efforts to avoid the existence of spurious regression has led to the development of modern time series analysis (see How Modern Time Series Analysis Emerged? ). The core objective of unit root and cointegration procedures is to differentiate between genuine and spurious regression. However, despite the huge literature, the unit root and cointegration analysis are unable to solve spurious regression problem. The reason lies mainly in the misunderstanding of the term spurious regression.

Spurious correlation/spurious correlation occur when a pair of variable having no (weak) causal connection appears to have significant (strong) correlation/regression. In these meanings the term spurious correlation/spurious has the same history as the term regression itself. The correlation and regression analysis were invented by Sir Francis Galton in around 1888 and in 1897, Karl Pearson wrote a paper with the following title, ‘Mathematical Contributions to the Theory of Evolution: On a Form of Spurious Correlation Which May Arise When Indices Are Used in the Measurement of Organs’ (Pearson, 1897).

This title indicates number of important things about the term spurious correlation: (a) the term spurious correlation was known as early as 1897, that is, in less than 10 years after the invention of correlation analysis (ii) there were more than one types of spurious correlation known to the scientists of that time, therefore, the author used the phrase ‘On a Farm of Spurious Regression’, (c) the spurious correlation was observed in measurement of organs, a cross-sectional data (d) the reason of spurious correlation was use of indices, not the non-stationarity.

One can find in classical econometric literature that that many kinds of spurious correlations were known to experts in first two decades of twentieth century. These kinds of spurious correlations include spurious correlation due to use of indices (Pearson, 1897), spurious correlation due to variations in magnitude of population (Yule, 1910), spurious correlation due to mixing of heterogeneous records (Brown et al, 1914), etc. The most important reason, as the econometricians of that time understand, was the missing third variable (Yule, 1926).

Granger and Newbold (1974) performed a simulation study in which they generated two independent random walk time series x(t)=x(t-1)+e(t) and y(t)=y(t-1)+u(t) . The two series are non-stationary and the correlation of error terms in the two series is zero so that the two series are totally independent of each other. The two variables don’t have any common missing factor to which the movement of the two series can be attributed. Now the regression of the type y(t)=a+bx(t)+e(t) should give insignificant regression coefficient, but the simulation showed very high probability of getting significant coefficient. Therefore, Granger and Newbold concluded that spurious regression occurs due to non-stationarity.

Three points are worth considering regarding the study of Granger and Newbold. First, the above cited literature clearly indicates that the spurious correlation does exist in cross-sectional data and the Granger-Newbold experiment is not capable to explain cross-sectional spurious correlation. Second, the existing understanding of the spurious correlation was that it happens due to missing variables and the experiment adds another reason for the phenomenon which cannot deny the existing understanding. Third, the experiment shows that non-stationarity is one of the reasons of spurious regression. It does not prove that non-stationarity  is ‘the only’ reason of spurious regression.

However, unfortunately, the econometric literature that emerged after Granger and Newbold, adapted the misconception. Now, many textbooks discuss the spurious regression only in the context of non-stationarity, which leads to the misconception that the spurious regression is a non-stationarity related phenomenon. Similarly, the discussion of missing variable as a reason of spurious regression is usually not present in the recent textbooks and other academic literature.

To show that spurious regression is not necessarily a time series phenomenon, consider the following example:

A researcher is interested in knowing the relationship between shoe size and mathematical ability level of school students. He goes to a high school and takes a random sample of the students present in the school. He takes readings on shoe size and ability to solve the mathematical problems of the selected students. He finds that there is very high correlation between two variables. Would this be sufficient to argue that the admission policy of the school should be based on the measurement of shoe size? Otherwise, what accounts for this high correlation?

If sample is selected from a high school having kids in different classes, the same observation is almost sure to occur. The pupil in higher classes have larger shoe size and have higher mathematical skills, whereas student in lower classes have lower mathematical skills. Therefore, high correlation is expected. However, if we take data of only one class, say grade III, we will not see such high correlation. Since theoretically, there should be no correlation between shoe size and mathematical skills, this apparently high correlation may be regarded as spurious correlation/regression. The reason for this spurious correlation is mixing of missing age factor which drives both shoe size and mathematical skills.

Since this is not a time series data, there is no question of the existence of non-stationarity, but the spurious correlation exists. This shows that spurious correlation is no necessarily a time series phenomenon. The unit root and cointegration would be just incapable to solve this problem.

Similarly, it can be shown that the unit root and cointegration analysis can fail to work even with time series data, and this will be discussed in our next blog

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