# How to combine standard errors for correlated variables

What is the formula for calculating the standard error of a quantity (A) that is the ratio of 2 quantities (A = B/C) if B and C are correlated?

According to page 2 of http://www.met.rdg.ac.uk/~swrhgnrj/combining_errors.pdf
the formula for independent variables would be: However, how do I account for the covariance of B and C?

I find a little algebraic manipulation of the following nature to provide a congenial path to solving problems like this — where you know the covariance matrix of variables $$(B,C)(B,C)$$ and wish to estimate the variance of some function of them, such as $$B/C.B/C.$$ (This is often called the “Delta Method.”)

Write

$$B=β+X, C=γ+YB = \beta + X,\ C = \gamma + Y$$

where $$β\beta$$ is the expectation of $$BB$$ and $$γ\gamma$$ that of $$C.C.$$ This makes $$(X,Y)(X,Y)$$ a zero-mean random variable with the same variances and covariance as $$(B,C).(B,C).$$ Seemingly nothing is accomplished, but this decomposition is algebraically suggestive, as in

$$A=BC=β+Xγ+Y=(βγ)1+X/β1+Y/γ.A = \frac{B}{C} = \frac{\beta+X}{\gamma+Y} = \left(\frac{\beta}{\gamma}\right) \frac{1 + X/\beta}{1+Y/\gamma}.$$

That is, $$AA$$ is proportional to a ratio of two numbers that might both be close to unity. This is the circumstance that permits an approximate calculation of the variance of $$AA$$ based only on the covariance matrix of $$(B,C).(B,C).$$

Right away this division by $$γ\gamma$$ shows the futility of attempting a solution when $$γ≈0.\gamma \approx 0.$$ (See https://stats.stackexchange.com/a/299765/919 for illustrations of what goes wrong when dividing one random variable by another that has a good chance of coming very close to zero.)

Assuming $$γ\gamma$$ is reasonably far from $$0,0,$$ the foregoing expression also hints at the possibility of approximating the second fraction using the MacLaurin series for $$(1+Y/γ)−1,(1+Y/\gamma)^{-1},$$ which will be possible provided there is little change that $$|Y/γ|≥1|Y/\gamma|\ge 1$$ (outside the range of absolute convergence of this expansion). In other words, further suppose the distribution of $$CC$$ is concentrated between $$00$$ and $$2γ.2\gamma.$$ In this case the series gives

1+X/β1+Y/γ=(1+X/β)(1−(Y/γ)+O((Y/γ)2))=1+X/β−Y/γ+O((X/β)(Y/γ)2).\begin{aligned} \frac{1 + X/\beta}{1+Y/\gamma} &= \left(1 + X/\beta\right)\left(1 - (Y/\gamma) + O\left((Y/\gamma)^2\right)\right)\\&= 1 + X/\beta - Y/\gamma + O\left(\left(X/\beta\right)(Y/\gamma)^2\right).\end{aligned}

We may neglect the last term provided the chance that $$(X/β)(Y/γ)2(X/\beta)(Y/\gamma)^2$$ being large is tiny. This is tantamount to supposing most of the probability of $$YY$$ is very close to $$γ\gamma$$ and that $$XX$$ and $$Y2Y^2$$ are not too strongly correlated. In this case

Var(A)≈(βγ)2Var(1+X/β−Y/γ)=(βγ)2(1β2Var(B)+1γ2Var(C)−2βγCov(B,C))=1γ2Var(B)+β2γ4Var(C)−2βγ3Cov(B,C).\begin{aligned} \operatorname{Var}(A) &\approx \left(\frac{\beta}{\gamma}\right)^2\operatorname{Var}(1 + X/\beta - Y/\gamma)\\ &= \left(\frac{\beta}{\gamma}\right)^2\left( \frac{1}{\beta^2}\operatorname{Var}(B) + \frac{1}{\gamma^2}\operatorname{Var}(C) - \frac{2}{\beta\gamma}\operatorname{Cov}(B,C)\right) \\ &= \frac{1}{\gamma^2} \operatorname{Var}(B) + \frac{\beta^2}{\gamma^4}\operatorname{Var}(C) - \frac{2\beta}{\gamma^3}\operatorname{Cov}(B,C). \end{aligned}

You might wonder why I fuss over the assumptions. They matter. One way to check them is to generate Normally distributed variates $$BB$$ and $$CC$$ in a simulation: it will provide a good estimate of the variance of $$AA$$ and, to the extent $$AA$$ appears approximately Normally distributed, will confirm the three bold assumptions needed to rely on this result do indeed hold.

For instance, with the covariance matrix $$(1−0.9−0.91)\pmatrix{1&-0.9\\-0.9&1}$$ and means $$(β,γ)=(5,10),(\beta,\gamma)=(5, 10),$$ the approximation does OK (left panel): The variance of these 100,000 simulated values is $$0.0233,0.0233,$$ close to the formula’s value of $$0.0215.0.0215.$$ But reducing $$γ\gamma$$ from $$1010$$ to $$4,4,$$ which looks innocent enough ($$44$$ is still four standard deviations of $$CC$$ away from $$00$$) has profound effects due to the strong correlation of $$BB$$ and $$C,C,$$ as seen in the right hand histogram. Evidently $$CC$$ has a small but appreciable chance of being nearly $$0,0,$$ creating large values of $$B/CB/C$$ (both negative and positive). This is a case where we should not neglect the $$XY2XY^2$$ term in the MacLaurin expansion. Now the variance of these 100,000 simulated values of $$AA$$ is $$2.2002.200$$ but the formula gives $$0.301,0.301,$$ far too small.

This is the R code that generated the first figure. A small change in the third line generates the second figure.

n <- 1e5   # Simulation size
beta <- 5
gamma <- 10
Sigma <- matrix(c(1, -0.9, -0.9, 1), 2)

library(MASS) #mvrnorm

bc <- mvrnorm(n, c(beta, gamma), Sigma)
A <- bc[, 1] / bc[, 2]
#
# Report the simulated and approximate variances.
#
signif(c(Var(A)=var(A),
Approx=(Sigma[1,1]/gamma^2 + beta^2*Sigma[2,2]/gamma^4 - 2*beta/gamma^3*Sigma[1,2])),
3)

hist(A, freq=FALSE, breaks=50, col="#f0f0f0")
curve(dnorm(x, mean(A), sd(A)), col="SkyBlue", lwd=2, add=TRUE)