The Annals of Statistics

Optimality and sub-optimality of PCA I: Spiked random matrix models

Amelia Perry, Alexander S. Wein, Afonso S. Bandeira, and Ankur Moitra

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A central problem of random matrix theory is to understand the eigenvalues of spiked random matrix models, introduced by Johnstone, in which a prominent eigenvector (or “spike”) is planted into a random matrix. These distributions form natural statistical models for principal component analysis (PCA) problems throughout the sciences. Baik, Ben Arous and Péché showed that the spiked Wishart ensemble exhibits a sharp phase transition asymptotically: when the spike strength is above a critical threshold, it is possible to detect the presence of a spike based on the top eigenvalue, and below the threshold the top eigenvalue provides no information. Such results form the basis of our understanding of when PCA can detect a low-rank signal in the presence of noise. However, under structural assumptions on the spike, not all information is necessarily contained in the spectrum. We study the statistical limits of tests for the presence of a spike, including nonspectral tests. Our results leverage Le Cam’s notion of contiguity and include:

(i) For the Gaussian Wigner ensemble, we show that PCA achieves the optimal detection threshold for certain natural priors for the spike.

(ii) For any non-Gaussian Wigner ensemble, PCA is sub-optimal for detection. However, an efficient variant of PCA achieves the optimal threshold (for natural priors) by pre-transforming the matrix entries.

(iii) For the Gaussian Wishart ensemble, the PCA threshold is optimal for positive spikes (for natural priors) but this is not always the case for negative spikes.

Article information

Ann. Statist., Volume 46, Number 5 (2018), 2416-2451.

Received: April 2017
Revised: July 2017
First available in Project Euclid: 17 August 2018

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Mathematical Reviews number (MathSciNet)

Zentralblatt MATH identifier

Primary: 62H15: Hypothesis testing 62B15: Theory of statistical experiments

Random matrix principal component analysis hypothesis testing deformed Wigner spiked covariance contiguity power envelope phase transition


Perry, Amelia; Wein, Alexander S.; Bandeira, Afonso S.; Moitra, Ankur. Optimality and sub-optimality of PCA I: Spiked random matrix models. Ann. Statist. 46 (2018), no. 5, 2416--2451. doi:10.1214/17-AOS1625.

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Supplemental materials

  • Optimality and sub-optimality of PCA in spiked random matrix models: Supplementary proofs. Contains proofs omitted from this paper for the sake of length.