# 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.

Applications

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.

References

[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

# Skorohod embedding

Background

Suppose we are given a standard Brownian motion $(B_t)$, and a stopping time T. Then, so long as T satisfies one of the regularity conditions under which the Optional Stopping Theorem applies, we know that $\mathbb{E}[B_T]=0$. (See here for a less formal introduction to OST.) Furthermore, since $B_t^2-t$ is a martingale, $\mathbb{E}[B_T^2]=\mathbb{E}[T]$, so if the latter is finite, so is the former.

Now, using the strong Markov property of Brownian motion, we can come up with a sequence of stopping times $0=T_0, T_1, T_2,\ldots$ such that the increments $T_k-T_{k-1}$ are IID with the same distribution as T. Then $0,B_{T_1},B_{T_2},\ldots$ is a centered random walk. By taking T to be the hitting time of $\{-1,+1\}$, it is easy to see that we can embed simple random walk in a Brownian motion using this approach.

Embedding simple random walk in Brownian motion.

The Skorohod embedding question asks: can all centered random walks be constructed in this fashion, by stopping Brownian motion at a sequence of stopping time? With the strong Markov property, it immediately reduces the question of whether all centered finite-variance distributions X can be expressed as $B_T$ for some integrable stopping time T.

The answer to this question is yes, and much of what follows is drawn from, or at least prompted by Obloj’s survey paper which details the problem and rich history of the many approaches to its solution over the past seventy years.

Applications and related things

The relationship between random walks and Brownian motion is a rich one. Donsker’s invariance principle asserts that Brownian motion appears as the scaling limit of a random walk. Indeed, one can construct Brownian motion itself as the limit of a sequence of consistent random walks with normal increments on an increasingly dense set of times. Furthermore, random walks are martingales, and we know that continuous, local martingales can be expressed as a (stochastically) time-changed Brownian motion, from the Dubins-Schwarz theorem.

The Skorohod embedding theorem can be used to prove results about random walks with general distribution by proving the corresponding result for Brownian motion, and checking that the construction of the sequence of stopping times has the right properties to allow the result to be carried back to the original setting. It obviously also gives a coupling between a individual random walk and a Brownian motion which may be useful in some contexts, as well as a coupling between any pair of random walks. This is useful in proving results for random walks which are much easier for special cases of the distribution. For example, when the increments are Gaussian, or when there are combinatorial approaches to a problem about simple random walk. At the moment no aspect of this blog schedule is guaranteed, but I plan to talk about the law of the iterated logarithm shortly, whose proof is approachable in both of these settings, as well as for Brownian motion, and Skorohod embedding provides the route to the general proof.

At the end, we will briefly compare some other ways to couple a random walk and a Brownian motion.

One thing we could do is sample a copy of X independently from the Brownian motion, then declare $T= \tau_{X}:= \inf\{t\ge 0: B_t=X\}$, the hitting time of (random value) X. But recall that unfortunately $\tau_x$ has infinite expectation for all non-zero x, so this doesn’t fit the conditions required to use OST.

Skorohod’s original method is described in Section 3.1 of Obloj’s notes linked above. The method is roughly to pair up positive values taken by X appropriately with negative values taken by X in a clever way. If we have a positive value b and a negative value a, then $\tau_{a,b}$, the first hitting time of $\mathbb{R}\backslash (a,b)$ is integrable. Then we choose one of these positive-negative pairs according to the projection of the distribution of X onto the pairings, and let T be the hitting time of this pair of values. The probability of hitting b conditional on hitting {a,b} is easy to compute (it’s $\frac{-a}{b-a}$) so we need to have chosen our pairs so that the ‘probability’ of hitting b (ie the density) comes out right. In particular, this method has to start from continuous distributions X, and treat atoms in the distribution of X separately.

The case where the distribution X is symmetric (that is $X\stackrel{d}=-X$) is particularly clear, as then the pairs should be $(-x,x)$.

However, it feels like there is enough randomness in Brownian motion already, and subsequent authors showed that indeed it wasn’t necessary to introduce extra randomness to provide a solution.

One might ask whether it’s possible to generate the distribution on the set of pairs (as above) out of the Brownian motion itself, but independently from all the hitting times. It feels like it might be possible to make the distribution on the pairs measurable with respect to

$\mathcal{F}_{0+} = \bigcap\limits_{t>0} \mathcal{F}_t,$

the sigma-algebra of events determined by limiting behaviour as $t\rightarrow 0$ (which is independent of hitting times). But of course, unfortunately $\mathcal{F}_{0+}$ has a zero-one law, so it’s not possible to embed non-trivial distributions there.

Dubins solution

The exemplar for solutions without extra randomness is due to Dubins, shortly after Skorohod’s original argument. The idea is to express the distribution X as the almost sure limit of a martingale. We first use the hitting time of a pair of points to ‘decide’ whether we will end up positive or negative, and then given this information look at the hitting time (after this first time) of two subsequent points to ‘decide’ which of four regions of the real interval we end up in.

I’m going to use different notation to Obloj, corresponding more closely with how I ended up thinking about this method. We let

$a_+:= \mathbb{E}[X \,|\, X>0], \quad a_- := \mathbb{E}[X\,|\, X<0],$ (*)

and take $T_1 = \tau_{\{a_-,a_+\}}$. We need to check that

$\mathbb{P}\left( B_{T_1}=a_+\right) = \mathbb{P}\left(X>0\right),$

for this to have a chance of working. But we know that

$\mathbb{P}\left( B_{T_1}=a_+\right) = \frac{a_+}{a_+-a_-},$

and we can also attack the other side using (*) and the fact that $\mathbb{E}[X]=0$, using the law of total expectation:

$0=\mathbb{E}[X]=\mathbb{E}[X\,|\, X>0] \mathbb{P}(X>0) + \mathbb{E}[X\,|\,X<0]\mathbb{P}(X<0) = a_+ \mathbb{P}(X>0) + a_- \left(1-\mathbb{P}(X>0) \right),$

$\Rightarrow\quad \mathbb{P}(X>0)=\frac{a_+}{a_+-a_-}.$

Now we define

$a_{++}=\mathbb{E}[X \,|\, X>a_+],\quad a_{+-}=\mathbb{E}[X\,|\, 0

and similarly $a_{-+},a_{--}$. So then, conditional on $B_{T_1}=a_+$, we take

$T_2:= \inf_{t\ge T_1}\left\{ B_t\not\in (a_{+-},a_{++}) \right\},$

and similarly conditional on $B_{T_1}=a_-$. By an identical argument to the one we have just deployed, we have $\mathbb{E}\left[B_{T_2} \,|\,\mathcal{F}_{T_1} \right] = B_{T_1}$ almost surely. So, although the $a_{+-+}$ notation now starts to get very unwieldy, it’s clear we can keep going in this way to get a sequence of stopping times $0=T_0,T_1,T_2,\ldots$ where $B_{T_n}$ determines which of the $2^n$ regions of the real line any limit $\lim_{m\rightarrow\infty} B_{T_m}$ should lie in.

A bit of work is required to check that the almost sure limit $T_n\rightarrow T$ is almost surely finite, but once we have this, it is clear that $B_{T_n}\rightarrow B_T$ almost surely, and $B_T$ has the distribution required.

We want to know how close we can make this coupling between a centered random walk with variance 1, and a standard Brownian motion. Here, ‘close’ means uniformly close in probability. For large times, the typical difference between one of the stopping times $0,T_1,T_2,\ldots$ in the Skorohod embedding and its expectation (recall $\mathbb{E}[T_k]=k$) is $\sqrt{n}$. So, constructing the random walk $S_0,S_1,S_2,\ldots$ from the Brownian motion via Skorohod embedding leads to

$\left |S_k - B_k \right| = \omega(n^{1/4}),$

for most values of $k\le n$. Strassen (1966) shows that the true scale of the maximum

$\max_{k\le n} \left| S_k - B_k \right|$

is slightly larger than this, with some extra powers of $\log n$ and $\log\log n$ as one would expect.

The Komlos-Major-Tusnady coupling is a way to do a lot better than this, in the setting where the distribution of the increments has a finite MGF near 0. Then, there exists a coupling of the random walk and the Brownian motion such that

$\max_{k\le n}\left|S_k- B_k\right| = O(\log n).$

That is, there exists C such that

$\left[\max_{k\le n} \left |S_k-B_k\right| - C\log n\right] \vee 0$

is a tight family of distributions, indeed with uniform exponential tail. To avoid digressing infinitely far from my original plan to discuss the proof of the law of iterated logarithm for general distributions, I’ll stop here. I found it hard to find much coverage of the KMT result apart from the challenging original paper, and many versions expressed in the language of empirical processes, which are similar to random walks in many ways relevant to convergence and this coupling, but not for Skorohod embedding. So, here is a link to some slides from a talk by Chatterjee which I found helpful in getting a sense of the history, and some of the modern approaches to this type of normal approximation problem.