Moment conditions and Bayesian nonparametrics

August 5, 2015

(This article was first published on Xi'an's Og » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Luke Bornn, Neil Shephard, and Reza Solgi (all from Harvard) have arXived a pretty interesting paper on simulating targets on a zero measure set. Although it is not initially presented this way, but rather in non-parametric terms as moment conditions


where θ is the parameter of the sampling distribution, constrained by the value of β. (Which also contains quantile regression.) The very problem of simulating under a hard constraint has been bugging me for years and it is hence very exciting to see them come up with a proposal towards solving this difficulty! Even though it is restricted here to observations with a finite support (hence allowing for the use of a parametric Dirichlet prior). One interesting extension (Section 3.6) processed in the paper is the case when the support is unknown, but finite, with some points in the support being unobserved. Maybe connecting with non-parametrics if a prior is added on the number of unobserved points.

The setting of constricting θ via a parameterised moment condition relates to moment defined econometrics models, in a similar spirit to Gallant’s paper I recently discussed, but equally to empirical likelihood, which would then benefit from a fully Bayesian treatment thanks to the approach advocated by the authors.

bornnshepardDespite the zero-measure difficulty, or more exactly the non-linear manifold structure of the parameter space, for instance

β = log {θ/(1-θ)}

the authors manage to define a “projected” [my words] measure on the set of admissible pairs (β,θ). In a sense this is related with the choice of a certain metric, but the so-called Hausdorff reference measure allows for an automated definition of the original prior. It took me a (wee) while to spot (p.7) that the starting point was not a (unconstrained) prior on that (unconstrained) pair (β,θ) but directly on the manifold


Which makes its construction a difficulty. Even though, as noted in Section 4, all that we need is a prior over θ since the Hausdorff-Jacobian identity defines the “joint”, in a sort of backward way. (This is a wee bit confusing in that β being a transform of θ, all we need is a prior over θ, but we nonetheless end up with a different density on the joint distribution on the pair (β,θ). Any connection with incompatible priors merged together into a consensus prior?) Another question extending the scope of the paper would be to define Jeffreys’ or reference priors in this manifold sense.

The authors also discuss (Section 4.3) the problem I originally thought they were processing, namely starting from an unconstrained pair (β,θ) and it corresponding prior. The projected prior can then be defined based on a version of the original density on the constrained space, but it is definitely arbitrary. In that sense the paper does not address the general problem.

bornnshepard1“…traditional simulation algorithms will fail because the prior and the posterior of the model are supported on a zero Lebesgue measure set…” (p.10)

I somewhat resist this presentation through the measure zero set: once the prior is defined on a manifold, the fact that it is a measure zero set in a larger space is moot. Provided one can simulate a proposal over that manifold, e.g., a random walk, absolutely continuous wrt the same dominating measure, and compute or estimate a Metropolis-Hastings ratio of densities against a common measure, one can formally run MCMC on manifolds as well as regular Euclidean spaces. A first and theoretically straightforward (?) solution is to solve the constraint


in β=β(θ). Then the joint prior p(β,θ) can be projected by the Hausdorff projection into p(θ). For instance, in the case of the above logit transform, the projected density is

p(θ)=p(β,θ) {1+1/θ²(1-θ)²}½

In practice, the inversion may be too costly and Bornn et al. directly simulate the pair (β,θ) within the manifold capitalising on the fact that the constraint is linear in θ given β. Indeed, in this setting, β is unconstrained and θ can be simulated from a proposal restricted to the hyperplane. Gibbs-like.

Filed under: R, Statistics, University life Tagged: Bayesian nonparametrics, consensus, econometrics, Gibbs sampling, Hausdorff metric, Jacobian, Jeffreys priors, Lebesgue measure, manifold, method of moments, zero measure set

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