Hitting Times and Interlacing Eigenvalues: A Stochastic Approach Using Intertwinings


We develop a systematic matrix-analytic approach, based on intertwinings of Markov semigroups, for proving theorems about hitting-time distributions for finite-state Markov chains—an approach that (sometimes) deepens understanding of the theorems by providing corresponding sample-path-by-sample-path stochastic constructions. We employ our approach to give new proofs and constructions for two theorems due to Mark Brown, theorems giving two quite different representations of hitting-time distributions for finite-state Markov chains started in stationarity. The proof, and corresponding construction, for one of the two theorems elucidates an intriguing connection between hitting-time distributions and the interlacing eigenvalues theorem for bordered symmetric matrices.

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Research was supported by the Acheson J. Duncan Fund for the Advancement of Research in Statistics, and by U.S. Department of Education GAANN Grant P200A090128. The authors thank Mark Brown for stimulating discussions and the anonymous referee for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to James Allen Fill.

Appendix: \(P^*\) When \(P\) is a Star Chain

Appendix: \(P^*\) When \(P\) is a Star Chain

In Remark 3.6, it is claimed that if the given chain \(P\) is a star chain, then the star chain of Lemma 3.4 is simply obtained by collapsing all leaves with the same one-step transition probability to state \(0\) into a single leaf. More precisely, we establish the following:

Proposition 5.1

Let \(P\) be the transition matrix of an ergodic star chain with hub at \(0\). If for each \(\gamma _i\) in the reduced set of eigenvalues of \(P_0\), we define

$$\begin{aligned} m(i):=\{j\in [n]:\eta _j=\gamma _i\}, \end{aligned}$$

then \(P^*(0,i) = \sum _{j\in m(i)} P(0,j)\).


Define \(H:=\text{ diag}(\eta _1,\ldots ,\eta _n)\) and

$$\begin{aligned} x&:= (P(0,1),\ldots ,P(0,n)), \\ y&:= (1-\eta _1,\ldots ,1-\eta _n), \end{aligned}$$

so that

$$\begin{aligned} P = \left( \begin{array}{c|c} P(0,0)&x \\ \hline y^T&H \end{array} \right). \end{aligned}$$

By the standard formula for the determinant of a partitioned matrix (e.g., [16, Sect. 0.8.5]), if \(t\) is not in the spectrum \(\{\eta _1, \dots , \eta _n\}\) of \(H\), then we find

$$\begin{aligned} \det (tI-P) = [t-P(0,0)-x(tI-H)^{-1}y^T] \det (tI-H) \end{aligned}$$

for the characteristic polynomial of \(P\). Analogously, define \(\Gamma :=\text{ diag}(\gamma _1,\ldots ,\gamma _r)\) and

$$\begin{aligned} x^*&:= (P^*(0,1),\ldots ,P^*(0,r)), \\ y^*&:= (1-\gamma _1, \ldots ,1-\gamma _r); \end{aligned}$$

if \(t\) is not in the spectrum \(\{\gamma _1, \dots , \gamma _r\}\) of \(\Gamma \), then we find

$$\begin{aligned} \det (tI-P^*)=[t-P^*(0,0)-x^*(tI-\Gamma )^{-1}{y^{*T}}] \det (tI-\Gamma ) \end{aligned}$$

for the characteristic polynomial of \(P^*\).

Note that

$$\begin{aligned} P(0,0)&= \text{ tr}P -\text{ tr}H = \sum _{i = 0}^n \theta _i - \sum _{i = 1}^n \eta _i \\ \nonumber&= \sum _{i = 0}^r \lambda _i - \sum _{i = 1}^r \gamma _i = \text{ tr}P^*-\text{ tr}\Gamma = P^*(0,0), \end{aligned}$$

where the third equality is a result of the eigenvalue reduction procedure discussed in Sect. 3.1 and the fourth equality is from Lemma 2.6 in Ref.  [21]. Similarly, for all \(t\notin \{\eta _1,\ldots ,\eta _n\}\), we have

$$\begin{aligned} \frac{\det (tI-P)}{\det (tI-H)} = \frac{\det (tI-P^*)}{\det (tI-\Gamma )}. \end{aligned}$$

Therefore, for all \(t\notin \{\eta _1,\ldots ,\eta _n\}\), we have

$$\begin{aligned} \sum _{i=1}^n P(0,i) \frac{1-\eta _i}{t-\eta _i} = \sum _{i=1}^r P^*(0,i) \frac{1-\gamma _i}{t-\gamma _i}, \end{aligned}$$

because using definitions of \(H, x, y, \Gamma , x^*, y^*\) and equations (5.1)–(5.4) we find

$$\begin{aligned}&\sum _{i=1}^n P(0,i) \frac{1-\eta _i}{t-\eta _i} =x(tI-H)^{-1}y^T = t - P(0, 0) - \frac{\det (tI-P)}{\det (tI-H)} \\&\quad = t - P^*(0, 0) - \frac{\det (tI-P^*)}{\det (tI-\Gamma )} = x^*(tI-\Gamma )^{-1}{y^*}^T= \sum _{i=1}^r P^*(0,i) \frac{1-\gamma _i}{t-\gamma _i}. \end{aligned}$$

Rewrite (5.5) as

$$\begin{aligned} \sum _{i=1}^r P^*(0,i) \frac{1-\gamma _i}{t-\gamma _i}=\sum _{i=1}^r\left(\sum _{j\in m(i)} P(0,j)\right) \frac{1-\gamma _i}{t-\gamma _i}. \end{aligned}$$

Since \(\gamma _1, \dots , \gamma _r\) are distinct, it follow easily that \(P^*(0,i)=\sum _{j\in m(i)} P(0,j)\) for \(i = 1, \dots , r\), as desired. \(\square \)

Let \(\pi \) be the stationary distribution for \(P\). Using the formula for \(P^*(0, i)\) provided by Proposition 5.1, it is a simple matter to check that the probability mass function \(\pi ^*\) defined by \(\pi ^*(0) := \pi (0)\) and \(\pi ^*(i)=\sum _{j\in m(i)} \pi (j)\) for \(i \ne 0\) satisfies the detailed balance condition and is therefore the stationary distribution for \(P^*\); indeed, using the reversibility of \(P\) with respect to \(\pi \), we have

$$\begin{aligned} \pi ^*(0) P^*(0, i)&= \pi (0) \sum _{j \in m(i)} P(0, j) = \sum _{j \in m(i)} \pi (j) P(j, 0) \\&= \sum _{j \in m(i)} \pi (j) (1 - \gamma _i) = \pi ^*(i) P^*(i, 0). \end{aligned}$$

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Fill, J.A., Lyzinski, V. Hitting Times and Interlacing Eigenvalues: A Stochastic Approach Using Intertwinings. J Theor Probab 27, 954–981 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10959-012-0457-9

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  • Markov chains
  • Hitting times
  • Interlacing eigenvalues
  • Intertwinings

Mathematics Subject Classification (2010)

  • Primary 60J10
  • Secondary 60J27
  • 15A18