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Basic setup:

Unit of observation is the individual. Treatment (binary) is assigned on city level. Every state contains 4 cities, 2 get randomly chosen for treatment, 2 control. There are only few (e.g. 5+) states (strata). The outcome of interest is likely to be regionally clustered. I only observe one wave of outcomes, not a panel. (Side remark: For other reasons it is desirable to use state fixed effects.)

Question:

How to cluster standard errors for treatment effect inference?

Cameron and Miller (2014) state that

[If] either the regressors or the errors are likely to be uncorrelated within a potential group, then there is no need to cluster within that group [...] If a key regressor is randomly assigned within clusters [...] then the within-cluster correlation of the regressor is likely to be zero. Thus there is no need to cluster standard errors, even if the model’s errors are clustered.

Following this logic, it would not be necessary to cluster at the state level, as city-treatment is random within state. However, varying city sizes introduce within state correlation of treatment. Yet, the small number of states makes it less attractive to cluster at the state level.

I think, because the exact character of the within cluster correlation of treatment is known (city size), there must be a more efficient way to correct for this, i.e. to cluster at the city level and cope in some other way with the ex post within-state correlation of treatment.

Reference:

A. Colin Cameron and Douglas L. Miller (2014), A Practitioner’s Guide to Cluster-Robust Inference, Journal of Human Resources: http://www.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/cameron/research/Cameron_Miller_JHR_2014_July_09.pdf

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Survey statisticians have been doing clustered standard errors a few eons (i.e., some 50 years) before econometricians "discovered" them. If your sampling design sampled cities from states, independently between states, then states are strata, and cities are clusters. From the finite population perspective, linearization of the estimator leads to the need to compute the standard errors by clustering at the level of the city: a sufficiently large sample from a given city estimates that city's mean, and given that you always have a non-zero between-city variance, so a sample of nominal $n=1,000$ will only have 20 numbers, the city means, that are truly independent of one another. This is just how the mechanics of cluster sampling from finite population sampling works.

Economists don't like and don't understand this approach, and tend to like their models better (especially those economists who are fit enough to wear this t-shirt). They manage to convince themselves that San Francisco and Los Angeles are but two i.i.d. realizations from an infinite population of all possible cities of California. So in that discipline, you need to wave hands arguing about what may or may not be correlated... and some 20 years back, such handwaving led to development of an entirely new area of weak instruments, which of course was a great development.

To me, clustering is rarely if ever something to choose as a researcher when you analyze your data; this is what your design (i.e., the level at which you randomize and assign things) dictates. A regression model may be able to remove some correlations, but dropping clustering means that you assume that your model is perfect, and that any within-cluster correlation of the outcome has been perfectly explained away by the regressors. Well I am yet to see a social science regression with $R^2=1$, but I'd be happy to witness that miracle.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @StasK, I enjoyed reading this. Though it does not really "answer" the question. Or does it and I fail to get it? $\endgroup$ – sheß Jul 31 '15 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ Apparently ranting against economists also attracts upvotes :-) $\endgroup$ – Andy Jul 31 '15 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ Andy, it sure does. Shess, my answer is that you need to cluster at the level you randomized. If you randomly selected (and/or assigned to treatment groups) cities within the state, you need to cluster at that level. $\endgroup$ – StasK Jul 31 '15 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, then it doesn't work. I have within state correlation of treatment due to differing city size (ex post, individuals from some states are more likely to be treated than individuals from other states) and within state correlation of the outcome. Simply clustering at the city level alone is hence not enough (which is also confirmed by simulations I ran). $\endgroup$ – sheß Jul 31 '15 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ Then you probably need to do some inverse propensity weighting. Would that help in your situation? $\endgroup$ – StasK Jul 31 '15 at 18:11
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Your quote from Cameron and Miller (2014) is right though I guess that you have a panel for those cities, meaning that you observe them before and after the treatment. In that case the time component may introduce a clustering problem as cities from the same state are subject to the same within state shocks. For that reason it would still make sense to cluster at the state level.

What you actually ask is a question at the frontier of econometric research on cluster-robust inference with few clusters. The typical reflex nowadays is to immediately hint at the paper by Cameron et al. (2008) and their wild cluster bootstrap percentile-t statistic. Even though their method greatly improves on the generic cluster robust variance estimator that you commonly find in statistical packages, your number of cluster is even too small for their procedure. A recent paper by Webb (2014) provides simulation evidence on the wild bootstrap percentile-t not producing point identified p-values when you have less than 11 clusters.

Matthew also develops his own variance estimator by improving on the current wild bootstrap one. He shows that his method works with as little as 5 clusters - which seems to be what you have given the number of states. Using his method might work for you especially since you have equally sized clusters (wildly different cluster sizes are a problem even when you have a much larger number of clusters; see Webb's 2015 paper with James MacKinnon if you are interested).

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  • $\begingroup$ No, I don't have a panel. I am in search of the best procedure for cross-sectional treatment evaluation. The way I see it, the clustering problem is not introduced by any time component or the like, but by the fact that my data is on the indiv. level, and cities vary in size. $\endgroup$ – sheß Jul 31 '15 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ What is more, and what I think should be exploitable is that this, within cluster correlation follows a pretty simple structure. Which is why I thought it should be possible to find a way to cluster at the city level, and cope in some other way with the ex post within-state correlation of treatment $\endgroup$ – sheß Jul 31 '15 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ In that case you can't really estimate a treatment effect because there is nothing you can compare the treated cities to. Comparing them to the randomly chosen control cities doesn't work because they can be different from the treated cities for all different reasons and you won't be able to tell those apart from the actual treatment. Either way, clustering with very few clusters works as in Webb (2014) but as it stands this is the least of your problems in this setting. $\endgroup$ – Andy Jul 31 '15 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ The cities vary in size (and possibly other characteristics, though these differences are arguably negligible in my context), yes , but this difference is random and across strata (states) also uncorrelated with treatment. I would argue that the sole problem this introduces is an ex post within-state correlation of treatment, and I'm trying to find a solution to this which does not require clustering at the state level, as I want to avoid being left with only 5 clusters. $\endgroup$ – sheß Jul 31 '15 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Fair enough. In case you still have to do it, here's the answer. $\endgroup$ – Andy Jul 31 '15 at 14:54
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Rough idea, not fully tested: Partly hierarchical model, exploiting that the error structure is partially known and very simple between cities but should be kept flexible within cities.

Basically this simply allows for state level random effects, while remaining the clustering at the city level. State level random effects might be justified here because states are the randomization strata and ex-ante balanced. Intra-state correlation of individual treatment arises only through city-size differences, to which treatment is orthogonal.

In Stata this can be estimated by:

xtset state
bootstrap treatment=_b[treatment], cluster(city): xtreg outcome treatment, mle

(cluster-robust standard errors can only be bootstrapped here)

This yields the right p-values on simulated data

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