I have a postive definite symmetric covariance matrix which looks like this: enter image description here

Note that all A,B,C,D,E,F,G are also poitive definite symmetric covariance matrices I want to find an easy way were I can invert the matrix in parts instead of inverting all of it at one time. I would really appreciate an R code or any method in R that can solve my problem My main goal here is to find an efficient-fast way to invert this matrix and find its determinant

  • $\begingroup$ is this a symmetric matrix ... $[e^\top,f^\top,g^\top]=[h,l,m]$, $A$ symmetric, etc? If not, could you more clearly express what the situation is? $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Mar 6, 2016 at 7:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Are you sure you need to invert that matrix? If it is a system you are trying to solve there might be better alternatives. $\endgroup$
    – usεr11852
    Mar 6, 2016 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ It is a symetric matrix , It is the Gaussian correlatiuon function and I need to find its inverse. What other methods do you propose ? $\endgroup$
    – Wis
    Mar 6, 2016 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "the Gaussian correlation function"? $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Mar 6, 2016 at 20:58
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with the latest edits is that they make several of the answers incomprehensible. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Mar 7, 2016 at 0:44

3 Answers 3


Could you make use of a simple block matrix inversion?

$$\left[\begin{array}{cc} A & B \\C & D \end{array}\right]^{-1}$$

$$=\begin{bmatrix} (A - BD^{-1}C)^{-1} & -A^{-1}B(D - CA^{-1}B)^{-1} \\ -D^{-1}C(A - BD^{-1}C)^{-1} & (D - CA^{-1}B)^{-1} \end{bmatrix}$$

(where here "$A$" would probably best correspond to your matrix with diagonal or block-diagonal $(A,B,C)$)

If your covariance is really an ordinary variance-covariance matrix, there are more suitable (but related) calculations. You might also consider some matrix decomposition, such as a Choleski, which would be greatly simplified by the particular structure you have.


usεr11852 makes an excellent point in comments; there are many situations where you don't really need to compute the inverse itself.


For general sparse matrices, very efficient Choleski-based inversion can be done using the SparseM package. The basic steps are to create a vector of nonzero elements and vectors of row and column numbers to which these elements correspond. SparseM takes it from there. I've used this in the R rms package orm function allowing handling of thousands of intercepts in an ordinal regression model. The method for obtaining the equivalent of $(X'X)^{-1}X'Y$ is incredibly fast. A separate inverse is not computed.


Because this is a covariance matrix, $e=h$, $f=l$, $g=m$, and $A,B,C,D$ are all positive. Changing notation to handle a generalization of this problem, consider the symmetric matrix

$$\mathbb{A} = \pmatrix{ \sigma_1^2 & 0 & 0 & \cdots & x_1 \sigma_1 \sigma_n \\ 0 & \sigma_2^2 & 0 & \cdots & x_2 \sigma_2 \sigma_n \\ 0 & 0 & \sigma_3^2 & \cdots & x_3 \sigma_3 \sigma_n \\ \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \ddots& \vdots \\ x_1 \sigma_1 \sigma_n & x_2 \sigma_2 \sigma_n & x_3 \sigma_3\sigma_n &\cdots &\sigma_n^2}.$$

By comparing this to the question it is apparent that $n=4$, $\sigma_1 = \sqrt{A}$, $\sigma_2 = \sqrt{B}$, $\sigma_3 = \sqrt{C}$, $\sigma_4=\sigma_n=\sqrt{D}$, and $x_1 = e/(\sigma_1\sigma_n)$ etc. There are $n-1$ such $x_i$.

It is evident that

$$\mathbb{A} = \mathbb{U}\mathbb{X}\mathbb{U}$$

where $\mathbb{U}$ is the diagonal matrix with entries $(\sigma_1, \sigma_2, \ldots, \sigma_n)$ and (therefore)

$$\mathbb{X} = \pmatrix{ 1 & 0 & 0 & \cdots & x_1 \\ 0 & 1 & 0 & \cdots & x_2 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 & \cdots & x_3 \\ \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \ddots & \vdots \\ x_1 & x_2 & x_3 & \cdots & 1}.$$

It is straightforward to demonstrate (inductively) that $\mathbb{X}$ is invertible if and only if $x_1^2 + x_2^2 + \cdots + x_{n-1}^2 \ne 1$. In this case set

$$\Delta = \det(\mathbb{X}) = 1 - (x_1^2 + x_2^2 + \cdots + x_{n-1}^2)$$

and observe (using, for instance, the block-matrix formulae in Glen_b's answer) that

$$\mathbb{X}^{-1} = \frac{1}{\Delta}\pmatrix{ \Delta + x_1^2 & x_1 x_2 & x_1 x_3 & \cdots & -x_1 \\ x_2 x_1 & \Delta + x_2^2 & x_2 x_3 & \cdots & -x_2 \\ x_3 x_1 & x_3 x_2 & \Delta + x_3^2 & \cdots & -x_3 \\ \vdots & \vdots & \vdots & \ddots & \vdots \\ -x_1 & -x_2 & -x_3 & \cdots & 1}.$$

The computation of $\mathbb{U}^{-1}$ is simple--invert each of its diagonal entries--and the subsequent construction of

$$\mathbb{A}^{-1} = \mathbb{U}^{-1} \mathbb{X}^{-1} \mathbb{U}^{-1}$$

is equally easy.

To illustrate this algorithm, here is an R implementation. It creates a random symmetric matrix with positive diagonal entries and arbitrary values in the last row and column, inverts it with the algorithm, multiplies that by the original, and compares the result to the identity matrix. The arguments to the inversion function are the vector of $n$ diagonal elements a and the vector of $n-1$ elements in the bottom row of $\mathbb{X}$. Thus $\mathbb{X}$ never actually needs to be constructed.

The timing is a little slower than just using the sparseMatrix class in the Matrix package, because only native R operations (such as outer and t) are employed and these are not optimized for speed. Because the resulting inverse matrix is anything but sparse, there appears to be no inherent advantage to using sparse matrix calculations.

invert <- function(a, y) {
  n <- length(a)    # The diagonal elements
  sigma <- sqrt(a)
  x <- (y / (sigma[-n] * sigma[n]))
  Delta <- 1 - sum(x*x)
  X.inv <- outer(c(x, -1), c(x, -1)) + diag(c(rep(Delta, n-1), 0))
  X.inv <- t(t(X.inv) / sigma) / sigma
  return (X.inv / Delta)
# Create a matrix.
n <- 4000
a <- rexp(n)
y <- rnorm(n-1)

X <- diag(a)
n <- length(a)
X[-n, n] <- X[n, -n] <- y
# Invert it with the algorithm.
system.time(X.inv <- invert(a, y))
# Check that it is the inverse.
if (n <= 1000) {
  One <- zapsmall(X %*% X.inv)
  if(!all.equal(One, diag(rep(1,n))))
    warning("Not an inverse!") else 
      message("Inverse is correct.")

To use the sparse-matrix solver, access the solve function in the Matrix library. Here is an illustration that continues the preceding code.

i <- c(1:n, 1:(n-1), rep(n, n-1))
j <- c(1:n, rep(n, n-1), 1:(n-1))
X.0 <- sparseMatrix(i, j, x=c(a, y, y))
system.time(X.0.inv <- solve(X.0))

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