What Should You Get From a Simulation? Part 1

I read an interesting article on the causes of the Global Financial Crisis by John B. Taylor. Although the topic is interesting enough already, especially for a member of a risk analysis-specialising company, something else caught my eye. I have observed in training workshops, onsite consulting and now academic papers a phenomenon regarding probabilistic modelling. Many of those using the methods don’t understand what they should actually be getting from the methodology. There is an intellectual leap from the deterministic to the probabilistic that sometimes does not get made. This limits the usefulness of Monte Carlo simulation, and the value of performing such statistical analyses.

Back to the article which spurred me to write this blog in the first place. Or rather, the graph. Yes a single graph of housing starts vs. time (and its brief description) leapt out at me. One of the lines on the graph was claimed to show model simulations of housing starts using the actual interest rate, compared to the interest rate ‘predicted’ by the Taylor Rule and a third line showing actual data.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that simulation techniques should not be used to create a single value. The single ‘simulation’ line implies a single modelled/returned value for each time period. This is deterministic modelling. There may be a particular scenario that has been modelled, but it certainly isn’t a simulation that is being represented by that single line. Simulations produce thousands of data, observed values and their associated percentiles as well central moments (mean, variance etc.). Not just one value (sorry Value at Risk – that includes you too) that can be plotted as a single line. I would guess that if a simulation were run as I understand the term then the line in the chart was probably constructed using the simulated means. But I shouldn’t be guessing.

This is far from the only time I’ve seen simulation results reduced to a single entity. I have heard from clients in the past “the simulation gave $X” with little to no context around it, and this is supposed to both mean something to me and to their customers and help to make better decisions under uncertainty…

In the next blog I will explore this idea further and discuss the sorts of results that should be gleaned from a simulation. In particular, why narrowing simulation results down to a single number is counterproductive to healthy business practices.

Rishi Prabhakar

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