Random walks conditioned to stay positive

In this post, I’m going to discuss some of the literature concerning the question of conditioning a simple random walk to lie above a line with fixed gradient. A special case of this situation is conditioning to stay non-negative. Some notation first. Let (S_n)_{n\ge 0} be a random walk with IID increments, with distribution X. Take \mu to be the expectation of these increments, and we’ll assume that the variance \sigma^2 is finite, though at times we may need to enforce slightly stronger regularity conditions.

(Although simple symmetric random walk is a good example for asymptotic heuristics, in general we also assume that if the increments are discrete they don’t have parity-based support, or any other arithmetic property that prevents local limit theorems holding.)

We will investigate the probability that S_n\ge 0 for n=0,1,…,N, particularly for large N. For ease of notation we write T=\inf\{n\ge 0\,:\, S_n<0\} for the hitting time of the negative half-plane. Thus we are interested in S_n conditioned on T>N, or T=N, mindful that these might not be the same. We will also discuss briefly to what extent we can condition on T=\infty.

In the first paragraph, I said that this is a special case of conditioning SRW to lie above a line with fixed gradient. Fortunately, all the content of the general case is contained in the special case. We can repose the question of S_n conditioned to stay above n\alpha until step N by the question of S_n-n\alpha (which, naturally, has drift \mu-\alpha) conditioned to stay non-negative until step N, by a direct coupling.


Simple random walk is a perfectly interesting object to study in its own right, and this is a perfectly natural question to ask about it. But lots of probabilistic models can be studied via naturally embedded SRWs, and it’s worth pointing out a couple of applications to other probabilistic settings (one of which is the reason I was investigating this literature).

In many circumstances, we can desribe random trees and random graphs by an embedded random walk, such as an exploration process, as described in several posts during my PhD, such as here and here. The exploration process of a Galton-Watson branching tree is a particularly good example, since the exploration process really is simple random walk, unlike in, for example, the Erdos-Renyi random graph G(N,p), where the increments are only approximately IID. In this setting, the increments are given by the offspring distribution minus one, and the hitting time of -1 is the total population size of the branching process. So if the expectation of the offspring distribution is at most 1, then the event that the size of the tree is large is an atypical event, corresponding to delayed extinction. Whereas if the expectation is greater than one, then it is an event with limiting positive probability. Indeed, with positive probability the exploration process never hits -1, corresponding to survival of the branching tree. There are plenty of interesting questions about the structure of a branching process tree conditional on having atypically large size, including the spine decomposition of Kesten [KS], but the methods described in this post can be used to quantify the probability, or at least the scale of the probability of this atypical event.

In my current research, I’m studying a random walk embedded in a construction of the infinite-volume DGFF pinned at zero, as introduced by Biskup and Louidor [BL]. The random walk controls the gross behaviour of the field on annuli with dyadically-growing radii. Anyway, in this setting the random walk has Gaussian increments. (In fact, there is a complication because the increments aren’t exactly IID, but that’s definitely not a problem at this level of exposition.) The overall field is decomposed as a sum of the random walk, plus independent DGFFs with Dirichlet boundary conditions on each of the annuli, plus asymptotically negligible corrections from a ‘binding field’. Conditioning that this pinned field be non-negative up to the Kth annulus corresponds to conditioning the random walk to stay above the magnitude of the minimum of each successive annular DGFF. (These minima are random, but tightly concentrated around their expectations.)

Conditioning on \{T > N\}

When we condition on \{T>N\}, obviously the resulting distribution (of the process) is a mixture of the distributions we obtain by conditioning on each of \{T=N+1\}, \{T=N+2\},\ldots. Shortly, we’ll condition on \{T=N\} itself, but first it’s worth establishing how to relate the two options. That is, conditional on \{T>N\}, what is the distribution of T?

Firstly, when \mu>0, this event always has positive probability, since \mathbb{P}(T=\infty)>0. So as N\rightarrow\infty, the distribution of the process conditional on \{T>N\} converges to the distribution of the process conditional on survival. So we’ll ignore this for now.

In the case \mu\le 0, everything is encapsulated in the tail of the probabilities \mathbb{P}(T=N), and these tails are qualitatively different in the cases \mu=0 and \mu<0.

When \mu=0, then \mathbb{P}(T=N) decays polynomially in N. In the special case where S_n is simple symmetric random walk (and N has the correct parity), we can check this just by an application of Stirling’s formula to count paths with this property. By contrast, when \mu<0, even demanding S_N=-1 is a large deviations event in the sense of Cramer’s theorem, and so the probability decays exponentially with N. Mogulskii’s theorem gives a large deviation principle for random walks to lie above a line defined on the scale N. The crucial fact here is that the probabilistic cost of staying positive until N has the same exponent as the probabilistic cost of being positive at N. Heuristically, we think of spreading the non-expected behaviour of the increments uniformly through the process, at only polynomial cost once we’ve specified the multiset of values taken by the increments. So, when \mu<0, we have

\mathbb{P}(T\ge(1+\epsilon)N) \ll \mathbb{P}(T= N).

Therefore, conditioning on \{T\ge N\} in fact concentrates T on N+o(N). Whereas by contrast, when \mu=0, conditioning on \{T\ge N\} gives a nontrivial limit in distribution for T/N, supported on [1,\infty).

A related problem is the value taken by S_N, conditional on {T>N}. It’s a related problem because the event {T>N} depends only on the process up to time N, and so given the value of S_N, even with the conditioning, after time N, the process is just an unconditioned RW. This is a classic application of the Markov property, beloved in several guises by undergraduate probability exam designers.

Anyway, Iglehart [Ig2] shows an invariance principle for S_N | T>N when \mu<0, without scaling. That is S_N=\Theta(1), though the limiting distribution depends on the increment distribution in a sense that is best described through Laplace transforms. If we start a RW with negative drift from height O(1), then it hits zero in time O(1), so in fact this shows that conditonal on \{T\ge N\}, we have T= N +O(1) with high probability. When \mu=0, we have fluctuations on a scale \sqrt{N}, as shown earlier by Iglehart [Ig1]. Again, thinking about the central limit theorem, this fits the asymptotic description of T conditioned on T>N.

Conditioning on T=N

In the case \mu=0, conditioning on T=N gives

\left[\frac{1}{\sqrt{N}}S(\lfloor Nt\rfloor ) ,t\in[0,1] \right] \Rightarrow W^+(t), (*)

where W^+ is a standard Brownian excursion on [0,1]. This is shown roughly simultaneously in [Ka] and [DIM]. This is similar to Donsker’s theorem for the unconditioned random walk, which converges after rescaling to Brownian motion in this sense, or Brownian bridge if you condition on S_N=0. Skorohod’s proof for Brownian bridge [Sk] approximates the event \{S_N=0\} by \{S_N\in[-\epsilon \sqrt{N},+\epsilon \sqrt{N}]\}, since the probability of this event is bounded away from zero. Similarly, but with more technicalities, a proof of convergence conditional on T=N can approximate by \{S_m\ge 0, m\in[\delta N,(1-\delta)N], S_N\in [-\epsilon \sqrt{N},+\epsilon\sqrt{N}]\}. The technicalities here emerge since T, the first return time to zero, is not continuous as a function of continuous functions. (Imagine a sequence of processes f^N for which f^N(x)\ge 0 on [0,1] and f^N(\frac12)=\frac{1}{N}.)

Once you condition on T=N, the mean \mu doesn’t really matter for this scaling limit. That is, so long as variance is finite, for any \mu\in\mathbb{R}, the same result (*) holds, although a different proof is in general necessary. See [BD] and references for details. However, this is particularly clear in the case where the increments are Gaussian. In this setting, we don’t actually need to take a scaling limit. The distribution of Gaussian *random walk bridge* doesn’t depend on the mean of the increments. This is related to the fact that a linear transformation of a Gaussian is Gaussian, and can be seen by examining the joint density function directly.

Conditioning on T=\infty

When \mu>0, the event \{T=\infty\} occurs with positive probability, so it is well-defined to condition on it. When \mu\le 0, this is not the case, and so we have to be more careful.

First, an observation. Just for clarity, let’s take \mu<0, and condition on \{T>N\}, and look at the distribution of S_{\epsilon N}, where \epsilon>0 is small. This is approximately given by

\frac{S_{\epsilon N}}{\sqrt{N}}\stackrel{d}{\approx}W^+(\epsilon).

Now take \epsilon\rightarrow\infty and consider the RHS. If instead of the Brownian excursion W^+, we instead had Brownian motion, we could specify the distribution exactly. But in fact, we can construct Brownian excursion as the solution to an SDE:

\mathrm{d}W^+(t) = \left[\frac{1}{W^+(t)} - \frac{W^+(t)}{1-t}\right] \mathrm{d}t + \mathrm{d}B(t),\quad t\in(0,1) (**)

for B a standard Brownian motion. I might return in the next post to why this is valid. For now, note that the first drift term pushes the excursion away from zero, while the second term brings it back to zero as t\rightarrow 1.

From this, the second drift term is essentially negligible if we care about scaling W^+(\epsilon) as \epsilon\rightarrow 0, and we can say that W^+(\epsilon)=\Theta(\sqrt{\epsilon}).

So, returning to the random walk, we have

\frac{S_{\epsilon N}}{\sqrt{\epsilon N}}\stackrel{d}{\approx} \frac{W^+(\epsilon)}{\sqrt{\epsilon}} = \Theta(1).

At a heuristic level, it’s tempting to try ‘taking N\rightarrow\infty while fixing \epsilon N‘, to conclude that there is a well-defined scaling limit for the RW conditioned to stay positive forever. But we came up with this estimate by taking N\rightarrow\infty and then \epsilon\rightarrow 0 in that order. So while the heuristic might be convincing, this is not the outline of a valid argument in any way. However, the SDE representation of W^+ in the \epsilon\rightarrow 0 regime is useful. If we drop the second drift term in (**), we define the three-dimensional Bessel process, which (again, possibly the subject of a new post) is the correct scaling limit we should be aiming for.

Finally, it’s worth observing that the limit \{T=\infty\}=\lim_{N\rightarrow\infty} \{T>N\} is a monotone limit, and so further tools are available. In particular, if we know that the trajectories of the random walk satisfy the FKG property, then we can define this limit directly. It feels intuitively clear that random walks should satisfy the FKG inequality (in the sense that if a RW is large somewhere, it’s more likely to be large somewhere else). You can do a covariance calculation easily, but a standard way to show the FKG inequality applies is by verifying the FKG lattice condition, and unless I’m missing something, this is clear (though a bit annoying to check) when the increments are Gaussian, but not in general. Even so, defining this monotone limit does not tell you that it is non-degenerate (ie almost-surely finite), for which some separate estimates would be required.

A final remark: in a recent post, I talked about the Skorohod embedding, as a way to construct any centered random walk where the increments have finite variance as a stopped Brownian motion. One approach to conditioning a random walk to lie above some discrete function is to condition the corresponding Brownian motion to lie above some continuous extension of that function. This is a slightly stronger conditioning, and so any approach of this kind must quantify how much stronger. In Section 4 of [BL], the authors do this for the random walk associated with the DGFF conditioned to lie above a polylogarithmic curve.


[BD] – Bertoin, Doney – 1994 – On conditioning a random walk to stay nonnegative

[BL] – Biskup, Louidor – 2016 – Full extremal process, cluster law and freezing for two-dimensional discrete Gaussian free field

[DIM] – Durrett, Iglehart, Miller – 1977 – Weak convergence to Brownian meander and Brownian excursion

[Ig1] – Iglehart – 1974 – Functional central limit theorems for random walks conditioned to stay positive

[Ig2] – Iglehart – 1974 – Random walks with negative drift conditioned to stay positive

[Ka] – Kaigh – 1976 – An invariance principle for random walk conditioned by a late return to zero

[KS] – Kesten, Stigum – 1966 – A limit theorem for multidimensional Galton-Watson processes

[Sk] – Skorohod – 1955 – Limit theorems for stochastic processes with independent increments

Multitype Branching Processes

One of the fundamental objects in classical probability theory is the Galton-Watson branching process. This is defined to be a model for the growth of a population, where each individual in a generation gives birth to some number (possibly zero) of offspring, who form the next generation. Crucially, the numbers of offspring of the individuals are IID, with the same distribution both within generations and between generations.

There are several ways one might generalise this, such as non-IID offspring distributions, or pairs of individuals producing some number of offspring, but here we consider the situation where each individual has some type, and different types have different offspring distributions. Note that if there are K types, say, then the offspring distributions should now be supported on \mathbb{Z}_{\ge 0}^K. Let’s say the offspring distribution from a parent of type i is \mu^{(i)}.

The first question to address is one of survival. Recall that if we want to know whether a standard Galton-Watson process has positive probability of having infinite size, that is never going extinct, we only need to know the expectation of the offspring distribution. If this is less than 1, then the process is subcritical and is almost surely finite. If it is greater than 1, then it is supercritical and survives with positive probability. If the expectation is exactly 1 (and the variance is finite) then the process is critical and although it is still almost surely finite, the overall population size has a power-law tail, and hence (or otherwise) the expected population size is infinite.

We would like a similar result for the multitype process, saying that we do not need to know everything about the distribution to decide what the survival probability should be.

The first thing to address is why we can’t just reduce the multitype change to the monotype setting. It’s easiest to assume that we know the type of the root in the multitype tree. The case where the type of the root is random can be reconstructed later. Anyway, suppose now that we want to know the offspring distribution of a vertex in the m-th generation. To decide this, we need to know the probability that this vertex has a given type, say type j. To calculate this, we need to work out all the type possibilities for the first m generations, and their probabilities, which may well include lots of complicated size-biasing. Certainly it is not easy, and there’s no reason why these offspring distributions should be IID. The best we can say is that they should probably be exchangeable within each generation.

Obviously if the offspring distribution does not depend on the parent’s type, then we have a standard Galton-Watson tree with types assigned in an IID manner to the realisation. If the types are symmetric (for example if M, to be defined, is invariant under permuting the indices) then life gets much easier. In general, however, it will be more complicated than this.

We can however think about how to decide on survival probability. We consider the expected number of offspring, allowing both the type of the parent and the type of the child to vary. So define m_{ij} to be the expected number of type j children born to a type i parent. Then write these in a matrix M=(m_{ij}).

One generalisation is to consider a Galton-Watson forest started from some positive number of roots of various types. Suppose we have a vector \nu=(\nu_i) listing the number of roots of each type. Then the expected number of descendents of each type at generation n is given by the vector \nu M^n.

Let \lambda be the largest eigenvalue of M. As for the transition matrices of Markov chains, the Perron-Frobenius theorem applies here, which confirms that, because the entries of M are positive, the eigenvalue with largest modulus is simple and real, and the associated eigenvector has entirely positive entries. [In fact we need a couple of extra conditions on M, including that it is possible to get from any type to any other type – we say irreducible – but that isn’t worth going into now.]

So in fact the total number of descendents at generation n grows like \lambda^n in expectation, and so we have the same description of subcriticality and supercriticality. We can also make a sensible comment about the left-\lambda-eigenvector of M. This is the limiting proportion of the different types of vertices.

It’s a result (eg. [3]) that the height profile of a depth-first search on a standard Galton-Watson tree converges to Brownian Motion. Another way to phrase this is that a GW tree conditioned to have some size N has the Brownian Continuum Random Tree as a scaling limit as N grows to infinity. Miermont [4] proves that this result holds for the multitype tree as well. In the remainder of this post I want to discuss one idea along the way to the proof, and one application.

I said initially that there wasn’t a trivial reduction of a multitype process to a monotype process. There is however a non-trivial embedding of a monotype process in a multitype process. Consider all the vertices of type 1, and all the paths between such vertices. Then draw a new tree consisting of just the type 1 vertices. Two of these are joined by an edge if there is no other type 1 vertex on the unique path between them in the original tree. If that definition is confusing, think of the most sensible way to construct a tree on the type 1 vertices from the original, and you’ve probably chosen this definition.

There are two important things about this new tree. 1) It is a Galton-Watson tree, and 2) if the original tree is critical, then this reduced tree is also critical. Proving 1) is heavily dependent on exactly what definitions one takes for both the multitype branching mechanism and the standard G-W mechanism. Essentially, at a type 1 vertex, the number of type 1 descendents is not dependent on anything that happened at previous generations, nor in other branches of the original tree. This gives IID offspring distributions once it is formalised. As for criticality, we note that by the matrix argument given before, under the irreducibility condition discussed, the expectation of the total population size is infinite iff the expected number of type 1 vertices is also infinite. Since the proportion of type 1 vertices is given by the first element of the left eigenvector, which is positive, we can make a further argument that the number of type 1 vertices has a power-law tail iff the total population size also has a power-law tail.

I want to end by explaining why I was thinking about this model at all. In many previous posts I’ve discussed the forest fire model, where occasionally all the edges in some large component are deleted, and the component becomes a set of singletons again. We are interested in the local limit. That is, what do the large components look like from the point of view of a single vertex in the component? If we were able to prove that the large components have BCRT as the scaling limit, this would answer this question.

This holds for the original random graph process. There are two sensible ways to motivate this. Firstly, given that a component is a tree (which it is with high probability if its size is O(1) ), its distribution is that of the uniform tree, and it is known that this has BCRT as a scaling limit [1]. Alternatively, we know that the components have a Poisson Galton-Watson process as a local limit by the same argument used to calculate the increments of the exploration process. So we have an alternative description of the BCRT appearing: the scaling limit of G-W trees conditioned on their size.

Regarding the forest fires, if we stop the process at some time T>1, we know that some vertices have been burned several times and some vertices have never received an edge. What is clear though is that if we specify the age of each vertex, that is, how long has elapsed since it was last burned; conditional on this, we have an inhomogeneous random graph. Note that if we have two vertices of ages s and t, then the probability that there is an edge between them is 1-e^{-\frac{s\wedge t}{n}}, ie approximately \frac{s\wedge t}{n}. The function giving the probabilities of edges between different types of vertices is called the kernel, and here it is sufficiently well-behaved (in particular, it is bounded) that we are able to use the results of Bollobas et al in [2], where they discuss general sparse inhomogeneous random graphs. They show, among many other things, that in this setting as well the local limit is a multitype branching process.

So in conclusion, we have almost all the ingredients towards proving the result we want, that forest fire components have BCRT scaling limit. The only outstanding matter is that the Miermont result deals with a finite number of types, whereas obviously in the setting where we parameterise by age, the set of types is continuous. In other words, I’m working hard!


[1] Aldous – The Continuum Random Tree III

[2] Bollobas, Janson, Riordan – The phase transition in inhomogeneous random graphs

[3] Le Gall – Random Trees and Applications

[4] Miermont – Invariance principles for spatial multitype Galton-Watson trees

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Uniform Spanning Trees

For applications to random graphs, the local binomial structure and independence means that the Galton-Watson branching process is a useful structure to consider embedding in the graph. In several previous posts, I have shown how we can set up the so-called exploration process which visits the sites in a component as if the component were actually a tree. The typical degree is O(1), and so in particular small components will be trees with high probability in the limit. In the giant component for a supercritical graph, this is not the case, but it doesn’t matter, as we ignore vertices we have already explored in our exploration process. We can consider the excess edges separately by ‘sprinkling’ them back in once we have the tree-like backbone of all the components. Again, independence is crucial here.

I am now thinking about a new model. We take an Erdos-Renyi process as before, with edges arriving at some fixed rate, but whenever a cycle appears, we immediately delete all the edges that make up the cycle. Thus at all times the system consists of a collection (or forest) of trees on the n vertices. So initially this process will look exactly like the normal E-R process, but as soon as the components start getting large, we start getting excess edges which destroy the cycles and make everything small again. The question to ask is: if we run the process for long enough, roughly how large are all the components? It seems unlikely that the splitting mechanism is so weak that we will get true giant components forming, ie O(n) sizes, so we might guess that, in common with some other split-merge models of this type, we end up with components of size n^{2/3}, as in the critical window for the E-R process.

In any case, the scaling limit process is likely to have components whose sizes grow with n, so we will have a class of trees larger than those we have considered previously, which have typically been O(1). So it’s worth thinking about some ways to generate random trees on a fixed number of vertices.

Conditioned Galton-Watson

Our favourite method of creating trees is inductive. We take a root and connect the root to a number of offspring given by a fixed distribution, and each of these some offspring given by an independent sample from the same distribution and so on. The natural formulation gives no control over the size of the tree. This is a random variable whose distribution depends on the offspring distribution, and which in some circumstances be computed explicitly, for example when the offspring distribution is geometric. In other cases, it is easier to make recourse to generating functions or to a random walk analogue as described in the exploration process discussion.

Of course, there is nothing to stop us conditioning on the total size of the population. This is equivalent to conditioning on the hitting time of -1 for the corresponding random walk, and Donsker’s theorem gives several consequences of a convergence relation towards a rescaled Brownian excursion. Note that there is no a priori labelling for the resulting tree. This will have to be supplied later, with breadth-first and depth-first the most natural choices, which might cause annoyance if you actually want to use it. In particular, it is not obvious, and probably not true unless you are careful, that the distribution is invariant under permuting the labels (having initially assumed 1 is the root etc) which is not ideal if you are embedding into the complete graph.

However, we would like to have some more direct constructions of random trees on n vertices. We now consider perhaps the two best known such methods. These are of particular interest as they are applicable to finding random spanning trees embedded in any graph, rather than just the complete graph.

Uniform Spanning Tree

Given a connected graph, consider the set of all subgraphs which are trees and span the vertex set of the original graph. An element of this set is called a spanning tree. A uniform spanning tree is chosen uniformly at random from the set of spanning trees on the complex graph on n vertices. A famous result of Arthur Cayley says that the number of such spanning trees is n^{n-2}. There are various neat proofs, many of which consider a mild generalisation which gives us a more natural framework for using induction. This might be a suitable subject for a subsequent post.

While there is no objective answer to the question of what is the right model for random trees on n vertices, this is what you get from the Erdos-Renyi process. Formally, conditional on the sizes of the (tree) components, the structures of the tree components are given by UST.

To see why this is the case, observe that when we condition that a component has m vertices and is a tree, we are demanding that it be connected and have m-1 edges. Since the probability of a particular configuration appearing in G(n,p) is a function only of the number of edges in the configuration, it follows that the probability of each spanning tree on the m vertices in question is equal.

Interesting things happen when you do this dynamically. That is, if we have two USTs of sizes m and n at some time t, and condition that the next edge to be added in the process joins them, then the resulting component is not a UST on m+n vertices. To see why, consider the probability of a ‘star’, that is a tree with a single distinguished vertex to which every other vertex is joined. Then the probability that the UST on m vertices is a star is \frac{m}{m^{m-2}}=m^{-(m-3)}. By contrast, it is not possible to obtain a star on m+n vertices by joining a tree on m vertices and a tree on n vertices with an additional edge.

However, I think the UST property is preserved by the cycle deletion mechanism mentioned at the very start of this post. My working has been very much of the back of the envelope variety, but I am fairly convinced that once you have taken a UST and conditioned on the sizes of the smaller trees which result from cycle deletion. My argument is that you might as well fix the cycle to be deleted, then condition on how many vertices are in each of the trees coming off this cycle. Now the choice of each of these trees is clearly uniform among spanning trees on the correct number of vertices.

However, it is my current belief that the combination of these two mechanisms does not give UST-like trees even after conditioning on the sizes at fixed time.