An Introduction to Structural Econometrics in Julia

This tutorial is adapted from my Julia introductory lecture taught in the graduate course Practical Computing for Economists, Department of Economics, University of Chicago.

The tutorial is in 5 parts:

  1. Installing Julia + Juno IDE, as well as useful packages
  2. Defining a structural econometric challenge
  3. Data generation, management, and regression visualization
  4. Numerical simulation of optimal agent behavior under constraints
  5. Parallelized estimation by the Method of Simulated Moments

Here is the GitHub repository to replicate the results in this tutorial.

1. Installing Julia + Juno IDE, as well as useful packages

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to using Julia in the past has been the absence of an easy-to-install IDE. There used to be an IDE called Julia Studio which was as easy to use as the popular RStudio for R. Back then, you could install and run Julia + Julia Studio in 5mins, compared to the hours it could take to install Python and its basic packages and IDE. When Julia version 0.3.X was released, Julia Studio no longer worked, and I recommended the IJulia Notebook, which requires the installation of Python and IPython just to use Julia, so any argument that Julia is more convenient to install than Python was lost.

Now, with Julia version 0.4.X, Juno has provided an excellent IDE that comes pre-bundled with Julia for convenience, and you can install Julia + Juno IDE in 5mins. Here are some instructions to help you through the installation process:

  1. Go to and look for “Julia + Juno IDE bundles“. Click to download the bundle for your system (Windows, Mac, or Linux).
  2. After the brief download (the entire Julia language + Juno IDE is less than 1GB), open the file and click through the installation instructions.
  3. Open Juno, and try to run a very simple line of code. For example, type 2+2, highlight this text, right-click, and choose the option Evaluate. A bubble should display 4 next to the line of code.
    • Trouble-shooting: On my Mac running OS X Mavericks, 2+2 failed and an unhelpful error was produced. After some searching, I found that the solution was to install the Jewel package. To install Jewel from within Juno, just type Pkg.add(“Jewel”), highlight this text, and Evaluate. After this, 2+2 was successful.
  4. You have successfully installed Julia + Juno IDE. Now, you will want to run the following codes to install some other packages used in the econometric exercises below:

2. Defining a structural econometric challenge

To motivate our application, we consider a very simple economic model, which I have taught previously in the mathematical economics course for undergraduates at the University of Chicago. Although the model is analytically simple, the econometrics become sufficiently complicated to warrant the Method of Simulated Moments, so this serves us well as a teachable case.

Let c_i \geq 0 denote consumption and 0 \leq l_i \leq 1 denote leisure. Consider an agent who wishes to maximize Cobb-Douglas utility over consumption and leisure, that is,

U(c_i,l_i) = c^\gamma_i l^{1-\gamma}_i .

where 0 \leq \gamma \leq 1 is the relative preference for consumption. The budget constraint is given by,

c_i \leq (1-\tau)w_i(1-l_i)+\epsilon_i,

where w_i is the wage observed in the data, \epsilon_i is other income that is not observed in the data, and \tau is the tax rate.

The agent’s problem is to maximize U(c_i,l_i) subject to the budget constraint. We assume that non-labor income is uncorrelated with the wage offer, so that \mathbb{E}[\epsilon_i | w_i]=0. Although this assumption is a bit unrealistic, as we expect high-wage agents to also tend to have higher non-labor income, it helps keep the example simple. The model is also a bit contrived in that we treat the tax rate as unobservable, but this only makes our job more difficult.

The goal of the econometrician is to identify the model parameters \gamma and \tau from the data (c_i,l_i,w_i)^N_{i=1} and the assumed structure. In particular, the econometrician is interested in the policy-relevant parameter \bar\psi \equiv \frac{1}{N}\sum^N_{i=1}\psi(w_i), where,

\psi(w_i) \equiv \mathbb{E}_{\epsilon} \frac{\partial}{\partial \tau} C(w_i,\epsilon; \gamma, \tau),

and C(\cdot) denotes the demand for consumption. \psi(w_i) is the marginal propensity for an agent with wage w_i to consume in response to the tax rate. \bar{\psi} is the population average marginal propensity to consume in response to the tax rate. Of course, we can solve the model analytically to find that \psi(w_i) = -\gamma w_i and \bar\psi = -\gamma \bar{w}, where \bar{w} is the average wage, but we will show that the numerical methods achieve the correct answer even when we cannot solve the model.

3. Data generation, management, and regression visualization

The replication code for this section is available here.

To generate data that follows the above model, we first solve analytically for the demand functions for consumption and leisure. In particular, they are,

C(w_i,\epsilon_i; \gamma, \tau) = \gamma (1-\tau) w_i + \gamma \epsilon_i

L(w_i,\epsilon_i; \gamma, \tau) = (1-\gamma) + \frac{(1-\gamma) \epsilon_i}{ (1-\tau) w_i}

Thus, we need only draw values of w_i and \epsilon_i, as well as choose parameter values for \gamma and \tau, in order to generate the values of c_i and l_i that agents in this model would choose. We implement this in Julia as follows:

####### Set Simulation Parameters #########
srand(123)           # set the seed to ensure reproducibility
N = 1000             # set number of agents in economy
gamma = .5           # set Cobb-Douglas relative preference for consumption
tau = .2             # set tax rate

####### Draw Income Data and Optimal Consumption and Leisure #########
epsilon = randn(N)                                               # draw unobserved non-labor income
wage = 10+randn(N)                                               # draw observed wage
consump = gamma*(1-tau)*wage + gamma*epsilon                     # Cobb-Douglas demand for c
leisure = (1.0-gamma) + ((1.0-gamma)*epsilon)./((1.0-tau)*wage)  # Cobb-Douglas demand for l

This code is relatively self-explanatory. Our parameter choices are N=1000, \epsilon_i \sim \mathcal{N}(0,1), \gamma=1/2, and \tau=1/5. We draw the wage to have distribution w_i \sim \mathcal{N}(10,1), but this is arbitrary.

We combine the variables into a DataFrame, and export the data as a CSV file. In order to better understand the data, we also non-parametrically regress c_i on w_i, and plot the result with Gadfly. The Julia code is as follows:

####### Organize, Describe, and Export Data #########
using DataFrames
using Gadfly
df = DataFrame(consump=consump,leisure=leisure,wage=wage,epsilon=epsilon)  # create data frame
plot_c = plot(df,x=:wage,y=:consump,Geom.smooth(method=:loess))            # plot E[consump|wage] using Gadfly
draw(SVG("plot_c.svg", 4inch, 4inch), plot_c)                              # export plot as SVG
writetable("consump_leisure.csv",df)                                       # export data as CSV

Again, the code is self-explanatory. The regression graph produced by the plot function is:


4. Numerical simulation of optimal agent behavior under constraints

The replication code for this section is available here.

We now use constrained numerical optimization to generate optimal consumption and leisure data without analytically solving for the demand function. We begin by importing the data and the necessary packages:

####### Prepare for Numerical Optimization #########

using DataFrames
using JuMP
using Ipopt
df = readtable("consump_leisure.csv")
N = size(df)[1]

Using the JuMP syntax for non-linear modeling, first we define an empty model associated with the Ipopt solver, and then add N values of c_i and N values of l_i to the model:

m = Model(solver=IpoptSolver())    # define empty model solved by Ipopt algorithm
@defVar(m, c[i=1:N] >= 0)       # define positive consumption for each agent
@defVar(m, 0 <= l[i=1:N] <= 1)  # define leisure in [0,1] for each agent 

This syntax is especially convenient, as it allows us to define vectors of parameters, each satisfying the natural inequality constraints. Next, we define the budget constraint, which also follows this convenient syntax:

 @addConstraint(m, c[i=1:N] .== (1.0-t)*(1.0-l[i]).*w[i] + e[i] )        # each agent must satisfy the budget constraint 

Finally, we define a scalar-valued objective function, which is the sum of each individual’s utility:

 @setNLObjective(m, Max, sum{ g*log(c[i]) + (1-g)*log(l[i]) , i=1:N } )  # maximize the sum of utility across all agents 

Notice that we can optimize one objective function instead of optimizing N objective functions because the individual constrained maximization problems are independent across individuals, so the maximum of the sum is the sum of the maxima. Finally, we can apply the solver to this model and extract optimal consumption and leisure as follows:

 status = solve(m)                                                       # run numerical optimization c_opt = getValue(c)                                                     # extract demand for c l_opt = getValue(l)                                                     # extract demand for l 

To make sure it worked, we compare the consumption extracted from this numerical approach to the consumption we generated previously using the true demand functions:

 cor(c_opt,array(df[:consump])) 0.9999999998435865 

Thus, we consumption values produced by the numerically optimizer’s approximation to the demand for consumption are almost identical to those produced by the true demand for consumption. Putting it all together, we create a function that can solve for optimal consumption and leisure given any particular values of \gamma, \tau, and \epsilon:

 function hh_constrained_opt(g,t,w,e)      m = Model(solver=IpoptSolver())                                         # define empty model solved by Ipopt algorithm   @defVar(m, c[i=1:N] >= 0)                                               # define positive consumption for each agent
  @defVar(m, 0 <= l[i=1:N] <= 1)                                          # define leisure in [0,1] for each agent
  @addConstraint(m, c[i=1:N] .== (1.0-t)*(1.0-l[i]).*w[i] + e[i] )        # each agent must satisfy the budget constraint
  @setNLObjective(m, Max, sum{ g*log(c[i]) + (1-g)*log(l[i]) , i=1:N } )  # maximize the sum of utility across all agents
  status = solve(m)                                                       # run numerical optimization
  c_opt = getValue(c)                                                     # extract demand for c
  l_opt = getValue(l)                                                     # extract demand for l
  demand = DataFrame(c_opt=c_opt,l_opt=l_opt)                             # return demand as DataFrame

hh_constrained_opt(gamma,tau,array(df[:wage]),array(df[:epsilon]))          # verify that it works at the true values of gamma, tau, and epsilon

5. Parallelized estimation by the Method of Simulated Moments

The replication codes for this section are available here.

We saw in the previous section that, for a given set of model parameters \gamma and \tau and a given draw of \epsilon_{i} for each i, we have enough information to simulation c_{i} and l_{i}, for each i. Denote these simulated values by \hat{c}_{i}\left(\epsilon;\gamma,\tau\right) and \hat{l}_{i}\left(\epsilon;\gamma,\tau\right). With these, we can define the moments,

\hat{m}\left(\gamma,\tau\right)=\mathbb{E}_{\epsilon}\left[\begin{array}{c} \frac{1}{N}\sum_{i}\left[\hat{c}_{i}\left(\epsilon\right)-c_{i}\right]\\ \frac{1}{N}\sum_{i}\left[\hat{l}_{i}\left(\epsilon\right)-l_{i}\right] \end{array}\right]

which is equal to zero under the model assumptions. A method of simulated moments (MSM) approach to estimate \gamma and \tau is then,


where W is a 2\times2 weighting matrix, which is only relevant when the number of moments is greater than the number of parameters, which is not true in our case, so W can be ignored and the method of simulated moments simplifies to,

\left(\hat{\gamma},\hat{\tau}\right)=\arg\min_{\gamma\in\left[0,1\right],\tau\in\left[0,1\right]}\left\{ \mathbb{E}_{\epsilon}\left[\frac{1}{N}\sum_{i}\left[\hat{c}_{i}\left(\epsilon\right)-c_{i}\right]\right]\right\} ^{2}+\left\{ \mathbb{E}_{\epsilon}\left[\frac{1}{N}\sum_{i}\left[\hat{l}_{i}\left(\epsilon\right)-l_{i}\right]\right]\right\} ^{2}

Assuming we know the distribution of \epsilon_i, we can simply draw many values of \epsilon_i for each i, and average the moments together across all of the draws of \epsilon_i. This is Monte Carlo numerical integration. In Julia, we can create this objective function with a random draw of \epsilon as follows:

function sim_moments(params)
  this_epsilon = randn(N)                                                     # draw random epsilon
  ggamma,ttau = params                                                        # extract gamma and tau from vector
  this_demand = hh_constrained_opt(ggamma,ttau,array(df[:wage]),this_epsilon) # obtain demand for c and l
  c_moment = mean( this_demand[:c_opt] ) - mean( df[:consump] )               # compute empirical moment for c
  l_moment = mean( this_demand[:l_opt] ) - mean( df[:leisure] )               # compute empirical moment for l
  [c_moment,l_moment]                                                         # return vector of moments

In order to estimate \hat{m}\left(\gamma,\tau\right), we need to run sim_moments(params) many times and take the unweighted average across them to achieve the expectation across \epsilon_i. Because each calculation is computer-intensive, it makes sense to compute the contribution of \hat{m}\left(\gamma,\tau\right) for each draw of \epsilon_i on a different processor and then average across them.

Previously, I presented a convenient approach for parallelization in Julia. The idea is to initialize processors with the addprocs() function in an “outer” script, then import all of the needed data and functions to all of the different processors with the require() function applied to an “inner” script, where the needed data and functions are already managed by the inner script. This is incredibly easy and much simpler than the manual spawn-and-fetch approaches suggested by Julia’s official documentation.

In order to implement the parallelized method of simulated moments, the function hh_constrained_opt() and sim_moments() are stored in a file called est_msm_inner.jl. The following code defines the parallelized MSM and then minimizes the MSM objective using the optimize command set to use the Nelder-Mead algorithm from the Optim package:

####### Prepare for Parallelization #########

addprocs(3)                   # Adds 3 processors in parallel (the first is added by default)
print(nprocs())               # Now there are 4 active processors
require("est_msm_inner.jl")   # This distributes functions and data to all active processors

####### Define Sum of Squared Residuals in Parallel #########

function parallel_moments(params)
  params = exp(params)./(1.0+exp(params))   # rescale parameters to be in [0,1]
  results = @parallel (hcat) for i=1:numReps
  avg_c_moment = mean(results[1,:])
  avg_l_moment = mean(results[2,:])
  SSR = avg_c_moment^2 + avg_l_moment^2

####### Minimize Sum of Squared Residuals in Parallel #########

using Optim
function MSM()
  out = optimize(parallel_moments,[0.,0.],method=:nelder_mead,ftol=1e-8)
  println(out)                                       # verify convergence
  exp(out.minimum)./(1.0+exp(out.minimum))           # return results in rescaled units

Parallelization is performed by the @parallel macro, and the results are horizontally concatenated from the various processors by the hcat command. The key tuning parameter here is numReps, which is the number of draws of \epsilon to use in the Monte Carlo numerical integration. Because this example is so simple, a small number of repetitions is sufficient, while a larger number would be needed if \epsilon entered the model in a more complicated manner. The process is run as follows and requires 268 seconds to run on my Macbook Air:

numReps = 12                                         # set number of times to simulate epsilon
gamma_MSM, tau_MSM = MSM()                           # Perform MSM

Finally, given the MSM estimates of \gamma and \tau, we define the numerical derivative, \frac{df(x)}{dx} \approx \frac{f(x+h)-f(x-h)}{2h}, for some small h, as follows:

function Dconsump_Dtau(g,t,h)
  opt_plus_h = hh_constrained_opt(g,t+h,array(df[:wage]),array(df[:epsilon]))
  opt_minus_h = hh_constrained_opt(g,t-h,array(df[:wage]),array(df[:epsilon]))
  (mean(opt_plus_h[:c_opt]) - mean(opt_minus_h[:c_opt]))/(2*h)

barpsi_MSM = Dconsump_Dtau(gamma_MSM,tau_MSM,.1)

Thus, we estimate the policy parameter \bar\psi to be approximately -5.017 on average, while the true value is \bar\psi = -\gamma \bar{w} = -(1/2)\times 10=-5, so the econometrician’s problem is successfully solved.

Bradley Setzler


Upgrade to Julia Version 0.3.0

UPDATE: Julia is now on Version 0.4 and the Julia Developers have now released an IDE called Juno that is bundled with Julia. See the new installation guide here.


The Julia developers have officially released version 0.3.0, and it is a good idea to upgrade. The key packages in Julia that we use for economics — especially DataFrames — are being rapidly developed for 0.3.0, so you will need to upgrade to take advantage of new and improved features.

It’s relatively easy to upgrade Julia. However, it appears that Julia Studio does not and will not support 0.3.0, so the bigger problem users will face is abandoning Julia Studio in favor of another environment for writing and testing codes.

There are a few candidates from which you may choose to replace Julia Studio. My recommendation is IJulia. IJulia is somewhat easy to install, easy to use, and excellent for working with graphics. A drawback of using IJulia is that it loads in your browser and, at least in my experience, it often crashes the browser (I am using Safari on a Mac), so you will need to save your work frequently.

The greater drawback is that IJulia is much more difficult to install than Julia Studio, as it requires the installation of IPython. It used to be true that a complete novice could install and use both Julia and a coding environment with a few clicks. Now, it is more involved.

How to Install Julia 0.3.0 and IJulia

Here is a (somewhat) quick guide to upgrading Julia and replacing Julia Studio with IJulia:

  1. Delete your existing Julia and Julia Studio. On a Mac, these are located within the Applications folder. These can only cause problems by leaving them on your computer. You may need to check for hidden files relating to Julia and delete those as well (this is definitely true on a Mac, as the hidden ~.julia must be found and deleted). You can find instructions specific to your operating system here under Platform Specific Instructions.
  2. Go here and download Julia version 0.3.0. Once it finishes downloading, open the file and allow it to install. On a Mac, you can find Julia-0.3.0 in Applications once it has finished installing. Open Julia by double-clicking the application. It will open a command prompt/terminal that indicates you are using Julia version 0.3.0. You have successfully upgraded Julia.
  3. To install IJulia, first you will need to install IPython here. If you are lucky, pip install works for you and you can install IPython with one command. If not, you should consider installing a Python distribution that includes IPython; the easiest option may be to install Anaconda, although this gives you much more than you need.
  4. If you have made it this far, the rest is easy. Simply open Julia, use the Julia commands Pkg.add(“IJulia”), then“IJulia”), then Pkg.update().
  5. You are finished. To open IJulia, you can either use the commands using IJulia then notebook() within Julia, or within the command prompt/terminal use the command ipython notebook –profile julia.

Going Forward

Compare these moderately complicated instructions to my previous promise that anyone could have Julia and a Julia coding environment ready to use in under 5 minutes. 5 minute installation was one of my favorite aspects of Julia, and this is an unfortunate casualty of the upgrade to 0.3.0.

At the moment, it is easier to install R and R Studio than to install Julia and IJulia, unless you already have IPython on your computer. Hopefully, the Julia developer community, which is actively engaged and dedicated to the performance of this language, create a new one-click approach to installing both Julia and a Julia coding environment, which used to be available from Julia Studio. In the mean time, IJulia appears to be the best option for new users.

I hope this guide makes the transition a bit easier for you.

Bradley J. Setzler

Getting Started: Installing Julia, Julia Studio, and Packages used in Economics

UPDATE: Julia Studio is no longer supported. Please see my more recent installation guide here.

In this post, I explain how to install Julia, Julia Studio, and 3 packages commonly used in economics on your personal computer in about 5 minutes.

Installing Julia

Unlike installing Python, it is very easy to install Julia and its packages. Simply download Julia Studio, which is the most popular IDE for Julia, and click install. This will also install the current version of the Julia language. Now, open Julia Studio. In the console, type:

julia> 2+2 

and press Enter. If it returns the number 4, you have successfully installed Julia.

Installing Packages in Julia

Next, you need to install a few packages used frequently in economics. The following command will install the Distributions package, which allows you to simulate random variables and evaluate probability distribution functions. In the console, type:

julia> Pkg.add("Distributions")

Like R but unlike Python, Julia installs packages from within Julia. Also, install the packages called “DataFrames”, which is used for working with data, and “Optim”, which contains numerical optimizers.

That’s it, you should be ready to work in Julia after about 5 minutes of installations!

Bradley J. Setzler