What is meant by correlation between intercept and slope(s)

I often hear (e.g., p. 99 of this book) that in a regression model (of any type), it is bad for slope(s) and intercept to be (highly) correlated. In R, this correlation is gotten by cov2cor(vcov(fitted_model)).

My understanding is that after fitting a regression model, we get a single estimate for each slope and the intercept from our model.

Question: So, what correlations are we talking about given some few estimates at hand? And how high degrees of such correlations could affect our inference about our estimated slopes and intercept?

I highly appreciate an R demonstration.

• @Aksakal, from p. 99 of that book: "in complex models, strong correlations like this can make it difficult to fit the model to the data. So we’ll want to use some golem engineering tricks to avoid it, when possible. The first trick is centering." Jun 29 '20 at 17:22

There is a sense in which it is 'bad' for covariates to be highly correlated in a regression model, namely, that it can lead to multicollinearity. However, I don't think it's very meaningful to claim that correlation between the slope and the intercept to be collinear.

That said, your question is really about how there can be a correlation between the slope and the intercept, when these are always just $$2$$ points. This confusion is perfectly sensible. The problem is that the fact has been stated in an imprecise way. (I'm not being critical of whomever wrote that—I speak like that all the time.)

A more precise way to state the underlying fact is that the sampling distributions of the slope and intercept are correlated. An easy way to see this is through a simple simulation: Generate (pseudo)random samples of $$X$$ and $$Y$$ data from a single data generating process, fit a simple regression model in the same way to each sample, and store the estimates. Then you can compute the correlation, or plot them as you like.

set.seed(6781)  # this makes the example exactly reproducible

B         = 100  # the number of simulations we'll do
N         =  20  # the number of data in each sample
estimates = matrix(NA, nrow=B, ncol=4)  # this will hold the results
colnames(estimates) = c("i0", "s0", "i1", "s1")
for(i in 1:B){
x0 = rnorm(N, mean=0, sd=1)  # generating X data w/ mean 0
x1 = rnorm(N, mean=1, sd=1)  # generating X data w/ mean 1
e  = rnorm(N, mean=0, sd=1)  # error data
y0 = 5 + 1*x0 + e            # the true data generating process
y1 = 5 + 1*x1 + e
m0 = lm(y0~x0)               # fitting the models
m1 = lm(y1~x1)
estimates[i,1:2] = coef(m0)  # storing the estimates
estimates[i,3:4] = coef(m1)
}
cor(estimates[,"i0"], estimates[,"s0"])  #  -0.06876971  # uncorrelated
cor(estimates[,"i1"], estimates[,"s1"])  #  -0.7426974   # highly correlated
windows(height=4, width=7)
layout(matrix(1:2, nrow=1))
plot(i0~s0, estimates)
abline(h=5, col="gray")  # these are the population parameters
abline(v=1, col="gray")
plot(i1~s1, estimates)
abline(h=5, col="gray")
abline(v=1, col="gray") For some related information, it may help to read some of my other answers:

Edit:

in complex models, strong correlations like this can make it difficult to fit the model to the data. So we’ll want to use some golem engineering tricks to avoid it, when possible. The first trick is centering.

From:

• McElreath, R. (2015). Statistical Rethinking: A Bayesian Course with Examples in R and Stan. Chapman & Hall.

(Note that I haven't read the book.) The author's concern is perfectly reasonable, but it doesn't really have anything to do with the quality of the model or the inferences that it will support. The issue is with computational problems that could arise in the methods used to estimate the model. Note further that centering does not change anything substantive about the model, and that this is an issue in Bayesian estimation, but won't be a problem for frequentist models (like those above) that are estimated via ordinary least squares.

• Thanks, OK so it's just sloppy language. In reality, if we bootstrap a fitted model many times and get a sampling distribution for its estimates those sampling distributions could be correlated. I assume that vcov() uses a formula instead of bootstrapping. Jun 29 '20 at 17:14
• That high value of this correlation is a bad thing is for example discussed on p. 99 of this book Jun 29 '20 at 17:19
• @rnorouzian, there is an analytical derivation for the variance covariance matrix of the beta vector, so no bootstrapping is involved. If we call the residual variance $s^2$, then it's $s^2{\bf X'X}^{-1}$. Jun 29 '20 at 17:28

The R command cov2cor(vcov(fitted_model)) will return you the covariance matrix of regression estimates. It is proportional to $$(X'X)^{-1}$$, which means that in the extreme case of a perfect correlation of a slope and an intercept the covariance matrix is rank deficient.

Because the inverse of rank deficient matrix doesn't exist, the only way to have this situation is if when the matrix $$X'X$$ was rank deficient to start with, which is a definition of perfect multicollinearity (PM). PM can be problematic for inference, but often is no big deal for forecasting

Broadly, the way we calculate an OLS estimate is to first find the point ($$\bar{x},\bar{y}$$). That point will be on the line which minimizes the mean squared error (MSE). Then we take a line that goes through that point and rotate it until we find the slope ($$\hat{\beta}_1$$) that minimizes the MSE. That point and slope combination define the OLS line (and thus the intercept).

To find the intercept, we find where that line hits the y-axis. Each unit of $$x$$ that we move, we will move $$\hat{\beta}_1$$ units of $$y$$ from our initial point. Thus the intercept can be calculated as: $$\hat{\beta}_0 = \bar{y}-\hat{\beta}_1\bar{x}$$.

This formulation makes it relatively clear why there is a relationship between our estimate of $$\hat{\beta}_1$$ and $$\hat{\beta}_0$$. Unless $$\bar{x}=0$$, if we slightly increase our estimate of the slope, our estimate of the intercept must also change slightly.

In asymptotic arguments, as our sample changes slightly, this becomes a touch less clear, because the means ($$\bar{x},\bar{y}$$) also change. But within any given sample, there is a tight relationship between our beliefs about the slope and the intercept.