This continues my previous post on popular questions in second year exams. In the interest of keeping it under 2,500 words I’m starting a new article.

In a previous post I’ve spoken about the two types of Markov chain convergence, in particular, considering when they apply. Normally the ergodic theorem can be used to treat the case where the chain is periodic, so the transition probabilities do not converge to a stationary distribution, but do have limit points – one at zero corresponding to the off-period transitions, and one non-zero. With equal care, the case where the chain is not irreducible can also be treated.

A favourite question for examiners concerns hitting probabilities and expected hitting times of a set A. Note these are unlikely to come up simultaneously. Unless the hitting probability is 1, the expected hitting time is infinite! In both cases, we use the law of total probability to derive a family of equations satisfied by the probabilities/times. The only difference is that for hitting times, we add +1 on the right hand side, as we advance one time-step to use the law of total probability.

The case of hitting probabilities is perhaps more interesting. We have:

There are two main cases of interest: where the chain is finite but has multiple closed communicating classes, and where the chain is infinite, so even though it is irreducible, a trajectory might diverge before hitting 0.

For the case of a finite non-irreducible Markov chain, this is fairly manageable, by solving backwards from states where we know the values. Although of course you could ask about the hitting probability of an open state, the most natural question is to consider the probability of ending up in a particular closed class. Then we know that the hitting probability starting from site in the closed class A is 1, and the probability starting from any site in a different closed class is 0. To find the remaining values, we can work backwards one step at a time if the set of possible transitions is sparse enough, or just solve the simultaneous equations for .

We therefore care mainly about an infinite state-space that might be transient. Typically this might be some sort of birth-and-death chain on the positive integers. In many cases, the hitting probability equations can be reduced to a quadratic recurrence relation which can be solved, normally ending up with the form

,

where might well be q/p or similar if the chain is symmetric. If the chain is bounded, typically you might know or similar, and so you can solve two simultaneous equations to find A and B. For the unbounded case you might often only have one condition, so you have to rely instead on the result that the hitting probabilities are the minimal solution to the family of equations. Note that you will always have , but with no conditions, is always a family of solutions.

It is not clear a priori what it means to be a minimal solution. Certainly it is not clear why one solution might be pointwise smaller than another, but in the case given above, it makes sense. Supposing that , and A+B=1 say, then as we vary the parameters, the resulting set of ‘probabilities’ does indeed vary monotically pointwise.

Why is this true? Why should the minimum solution give the true hitting probability values? To see this, take the equations, and every time an appears on the right-hand side, substitute in using the equations. So we obtain, for ,

and after a further iteration

So we see on the RHS the probability of getting from i to A in one step, and in two steps, and if keep iterating, we will get a large sum corresponding to the probability of getting from i to A in 1 or 2 or … or N steps, plus an extra term. Note that the extra term does not have to correspond to the probability of not hitting A by time N. After all, we do not yet know that as defined by the equations gives the hitting probabilities. However, we know that the probability of hitting A within N steps converges to the probability of hitting A at all, since the sequence is increasing and bounded, so if we take a limit of both sides, we get on the left, and something at least as large as the hitting probability starting from i on the right, because of the extra positive term. The result therefore follows.

It is worth looking out for related problems that look like a hitting probability calculation. There was a nice example on one of the past papers. Consider a simple symmetric random walk on the integers modulo n, arranged clockwise in a circle. Given that you start at state 0, what is the probability that your first return to state 0 involves a clockwise journey round the circle?

Because the system is finite and irreducible, it is not particularly interesting to consider the actual hitting probabilities. Also, note that if it is convenient to do so, we can immediately reduce the problem when n is even. In two steps, the chain moves from j to j+2 and j-2 with probability ¼ each, and stays at j with probability ½. So the two step chain is exactly equivalent to the lazy version of the same dynamics on n/2.

Anyway, even though the structure is different, our approach should be the same as for the hitting probability question, which is to look one step into the future. For example, to stand a chance of working, our first two moves must both be clockwise. Thereafter, we are allowed to move anticlockwise. There is nothing special about starting at 0 in defining the original probability. We could equally well ask for the probability that starting from j, the first time we hit 0 we have moved clockwise round the circle.

The only thing that is now not obvious is how to define moving clockwise round the circle, since it is not the case that all the moves have to be clockwise to have experienced a generally clockwise journey round the circle, but we definitely don’t want to get into anything complicated like winding numbers! In fact, the easiest way to make the definition is that given the hitting time of 0 is T, we demand that the chain was at state n at time T-1.

For convenience (ie to make the equations consistent) we take in an obvious abuse of notation, and then

from which we get

Of course, once we have this in mind, we realise that we could have cut the circle at 0 (also known as n) and unfolded it to reduce the problem precisely to symmetric gambler’s ruin. In particular, the answer to the original problem is 1/2n, which is perhaps just a little surprising – maybe by thinking about the BM approximation to simple random walk, and that BM started from zero almost certainly crosses zero infinitely many times near we might have expected this probability to decay faster. But once it is unfolded into gambler’s ruin, we have the optimal stopping martingale motivation to reassure us that this indeed looks correct.