The Gram–Charlier A series (named in honor of Jørgen Pedersen Gram and Carl Charlier), and the Edgeworth series (named in honor of Francis Ysidro Edgeworth) are series that approximate a probability distribution in terms of its cumulants.[1] The series are the same; but, the arrangement of terms (and thus the accuracy of truncating the series) differ.[2] The key idea of these expansions is to write the characteristic function of the distribution whose probability density function f is to be approximated in terms of the characteristic function of a distribution with known and suitable properties, and to recover f through the inverse Fourier transform.

Gram–Charlier A seriesEdit

We examine a continuous random variable. Let   be the characteristic function of its distribution whose density function is f, and   its cumulants. We expand in terms of a known distribution with probability density function ψ, characteristic function  , and cumulants  . The density ψ is generally chosen to be that of the normal distribution, but other choices are possible as well. By the definition of the cumulants, we have (see Wallace, 1958)[3]


which gives the following formal identity:


By the properties of the Fourier transform,   is the Fourier transform of  , where D is the differential operator with respect to x. Thus, after changing   with   on both sides of the equation, we find for f the formal expansion


If ψ is chosen as the normal density


with mean and variance as given by f, that is, mean   and variance  , then the expansion becomes


since   for all r > 2, as higher cumulants of the normal distribution are 0. By expanding the exponential and collecting terms according to the order of the derivatives, we arrive at the Gram–Charlier A series. Such an expansion can be written compactly in terms of Bell polynomials as


Since the n-th derivative of the Gaussian function   is given in terms of Hermite polynomial as


this gives us the final expression of the Gram-Charlier A series as


Integrating the series gives us the cumulative distribution function


where   is the CDF of the normal distribution.

If we include only the first two correction terms to the normal distribution, we obtain


with   and  .

Note that this expression is not guaranteed to be positive, and is therefore not a valid probability distribution. The Gram–Charlier A series diverges in many cases of interest—it converges only if   falls off faster than   at infinity (Cramér 1957). When it does not converge, the series is also not a true asymptotic expansion, because it is not possible to estimate the error of the expansion. For this reason, the Edgeworth series (see next section) is generally preferred over the Gram–Charlier A series.

The Edgeworth seriesEdit

Edgeworth developed a similar expansion as an improvement to the central limit theorem.[4] The advantage of the Edgeworth series is that the error is controlled, so that it is a true asymptotic expansion.

Let   be a sequence of independent and identically distributed random variables with mean   and variance  , and let   be their standardized sums:


Let   denote the cumulative distribution functions of the variables  . Then by the central limit theorem,


for every  , as long as the mean and variance are finite.

Now assume that, in addition to having mean   and variance  , the i.i.d. random variables   have higher cumulants  . From the additivity and homogeneity properties of cumulants, the cumulants of   in terms of the cumulants of   are for  ,


If we expand in terms of the standard normal distribution, that is, if we set


then the cumulant differences in the formal expression of the characteristic function   of   are


The Gram-Charlier A series for the density function of   is now


The Edgeworth series is developed similarly to the Gram–Charlier A series, only that now terms are collected according to powers of  . The coefficients of n-m/2 term can be obtained by collecting the monomials of the Bell polynomials corresponding to the integer partitions of m. Thus, we have the characteristic function as


where   is a polynomial of degree  . Again, after inverse Fourier transform, the density function   follows as


Likewise, integrating the series, we obtain the distribution function


We can explicitly write the polynomial   as


where the summation is over all the integer partitions of m such that   and   and  

For example, if m = 3, then there are three ways to partition this number: 1 + 1 + 1 = 2 + 1 = 3. As such we need to examine three cases:

  • 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 · k1, so we have k1 = 3, l1 = 3, and s = 9.
  • 1 + 2 = 1 · k1 + 2 · k2, so we have k1 = 1, k2 = 1, l1 = 3, l2 = 4, and s = 7.
  • 3 = 3 · k3, so we have k3 = 1, l3 = 5, and s = 5.

Thus, the required polynomial is


The first five terms of the expansion are[5]


Here, φ(j)(x) is the j-th derivative of φ(·) at point x. Remembering that the derivatives of the density of the normal distribution are related to the normal density by  , (where   is the Hermite polynomial of order n), this explains the alternative representations in terms of the density function. Blinnikov and Moessner (1998) have given a simple algorithm to calculate higher-order terms of the expansion.

Note that in case of a lattice distributions (which have discrete values), the Edgeworth expansion must be adjusted to account for the discontinuous jumps between lattice points.[6]

Illustration: density of the sample mean of three Edit

Density of the sample mean of three chi2 variables. The chart compares the true density, the normal approximation, and two edgeworth expansions

Take   and the sample mean  .

We can use several distributions for  :

  • The exact distribution, which follows a gamma distribution:   =  
  • The asymptotic normal distribution:  
  • Two Edgeworth expansion, of degree 2 and 3

Disadvantages of the Edgeworth expansionEdit

Edgeworth expansions can suffer from a few issues:

  • They are not guaranteed to be a proper probability distribution as:
    • The integral of the density need not integrate to 1
    • Probabilities can be negative
  • They can be inaccurate, especially in the tails, due to mainly two reasons:
    • They are obtained under a Taylor series around the mean
    • They guarantee (asymptotically) an absolute error, not a relative one. This is an issue when one wants to approximate very small quantities, for which the absolute error might be small, but the relative error important.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Stuart, A., & Kendall, M. G. (1968). The advanced theory of statistics. Hafner Publishing Company.
  2. ^ Kolassa, J. E. (2006). Series approximation methods in statistics (Vol. 88). Springer Science & Business Media.
  3. ^ Wallace, D. L. (1958). "Asymptotic Approximations to Distributions". Annals of Mathematical Statistics. 29 (3): 635–654. doi:10.1214/aoms/1177706528. JSTOR 2237255.
  4. ^ Hall, P. (2013). The bootstrap and Edgeworth expansion. Springer Science & Business Media.
  5. ^ Weisstein, Eric W. "Edgeworth Series". MathWorld.
  6. ^ Kolassa, John E.; McCullagh, Peter (1990). "Edgeworth series for lattice distributions". Annals of Statistics. 18 (2): 981–985. doi:10.1214/aos/1176347637. JSTOR 2242145.

Further readingEdit