Method of moments (statistics)
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In statistics, the method of moments is a method of estimation of population parameters. One starts with deriving equations that related the population moments (i.e., the expected values of powers of the random variable under consideration) to the parameters of interest. Then a sample is drawn and the population moments are estimated from the sample. The equations are then solved for the parameters of interest, using the sample moments in place of the (unknown) population moments. This results in estimates of those parameters.
Suppose that the problem is to estimate unknown parameters characterizing the distribution of the random variable . Suppose the first moments of the true distribution (the "population moments") can be expressed as functions of the s:
Suppose a sample of size is drawn, resulting in the values . For , let
be the j-th sample moment, an estimate of . The method of moments estimator for denoted by is defined as the solution (if there is one) to the equations:
for x > 0, and 0 for x < 0.
The first moment, i.e., the expected value, of a random variable with this probability distribution is
and the second moment, i.e., the expected value of its square, is
These are the "population moments".
The first and second "sample moments" m1 and m2 are respectively
Equating the population moments with the sample moments, we get
Solving these two equations for α and β, we get
We then use these 2 quantities as estimates, based on the sample, of the two unobservable population parameters α and β.
Advantages and disadvantages of this method
In some respects, when estimating parameters of a known family of probability distributions, this method was superseded by Fisher's method of maximum likelihood, because maximum likelihood estimators have higher probability of being close to the quantities to be estimated and are more often unbiased.
However, in some cases, as in the above example of the gamma distribution, the likelihood equations may be intractable without computers, whereas the method-of-moments estimators can be quickly and easily calculated by hand.
Estimates by the method of moments may be used as the first approximation to the solutions of the likelihood equations, and successive improved approximations may then be found by the Newton–Raphson method. In this way the method of moments and the method of maximum likelihood are symbiotic.
In some cases, infrequent with large samples but not so infrequent with small samples, the estimates given by the method of moments are outside of the parameter space; it does not make sense to rely on them then. That problem never arises in the method of maximum likelihood. Also, estimates by the method of moments are not necessarily sufficient statistics, i.e., they sometimes fail to take into account all relevant information in the sample.
When estimating other structural parameters (e.g., parameters of a utility function, instead of parameters of a known probability distribution), appropriate probability distributions may not be known, and moment-based estimates may be preferred to maximum likelihood estimation.