I understand that when $Y$ is normally distributed, then OLS yields the same estimators as maximum likelihood, which implies that the estimators are sufficient and will be approximately normally distributed in large samples.

However, what distribution do OLS estimators follow when $Y$ is not normal?

As far as I'm concerned, all the regression result tables I've seen in Python and R return $t$ statistics for each estimated coefficient. Does this mean that the estimators always follow the $t$ distribution? And if so, how many degrees of freedom do the $t$ distributions have?

  • $\begingroup$ The statistics computed in the output will follow the $t$ distribution if $Y$ is normal, but otherwise will not. The degrees of freedom should be somewhere in summary output in R; it is the number of observations minus the number of covariates (including the intercept). $\endgroup$
    – angryavian
    Apr 24, 2021 at 6:17

1 Answer 1


I am going to assume that you are referring to the conditional distribution of $Y$ in the regression (i.e., given the explanatory variables), which follows directly from the underlying error distribution. So you are really asking what happens when the underlying error terms are not normally distributed.

The distribution of the OLS estimator is quite robust to non-normality of the error terms in the model, so long as you have a reasonable amount of data, and you have non-pathological behaviour in your explanatory variables. To see this, note that the OLS estimator can be written in terms of the error terms in the model as:

$$\begin{align} \hat{\boldsymbol{\beta}} &= (\mathbf{x}^\text{T} \mathbf{x})^{-1} \mathbf{x}^\text{T} \mathbf{Y} \\[6pt] &= (\mathbf{x}^\text{T} \mathbf{x})^{-1} \mathbf{x}^\text{T} (\mathbf{x} \boldsymbol{\beta} + \boldsymbol{\varepsilon}) \\[6pt] &= \boldsymbol{\beta} + (\mathbf{x}^\text{T} \mathbf{x})^{-1} \mathbf{x}^\text{T} \boldsymbol{\varepsilon} \\[6pt] &= \boldsymbol{\beta} + \sum_{i=1}^n \varepsilon_i \mathbf{w}_i, \\[6pt] \end{align}$$

where the vectors $\mathbf{w}_i = [(\mathbf{x}^\text{T} \mathbf{x})^{-1} \mathbf{x}^\text{T}]_{\cdot, i}$ are weight vectors that are fully determined by $\mathbf{x}$. Observe that the deviation of the OLS estimator from the true coefficient vector is a linear function of the error terms. Now, suppose that the error terms are independent with some distributon that has zero mean and a finite variance $\sigma^2 < \infty$, but which is not a normal distribution. Under broad conditions, we can appeal to the multivariate version of the Lyaponov central limit theorem (CLT) to establish that when $n$ is large we have:

$$\sum_{i=1}^n \mathbf{w}_i \varepsilon_i \overset{\text{Approx}}{\sim} \text{N} \Bigg( 0, \sigma^2 (\mathbf{x}^\text{T} \mathbf{x})^{-1} \Bigg).$$

Consequently, for large $n$ you have:

$$\hat{\boldsymbol{\beta}} \overset{\text{Approx}}{\sim} \text{N} \Bigg( \boldsymbol{\beta}, \sigma^2 (\mathbf{x}^\text{T} \mathbf{x})^{-1} \Bigg).$$

Now, the specific conditions required to apply the CLT here are a bit complicated. Roughly speaking, you need to show that the Lyapunov condition on the weighted sum is satisfied, which requires limiting conditions on the explanatory variables (see e.g., the Grenander conditions discussed here). However, under non-pathological behaviour for the explanatory variables, and assuming that the error terms are IID with finite variance, this is usually sufficient to allow application of the CLT, which means that the OLS estimator is approximately normally distributed when $n$ is large. Note that this result applies even if the underlying error distribution is not normal.

By the way, this is one of the big reasons why most of the standard tests in regression analysis are robust to loss of the normality assumption. All of the coefficient tests and goodness-of-fit tests can be derived using the CLT approximation under broad conditions that do not require the error terms to be normally distributed. The normality assumption for the error terms is important for prediction purposes, and you can et very bad predictions of new response variables if you apply this assumption without proper scrutiny. However, so long as you have a reasonable amount of data to fit your model, the normality assumption is not usually important for the internal T-tests and F-tests, and related distributional results for the coefficient estimators and goodness-of-fit statistics.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that asymptotic normality does not work well for approximation of situations with outliers; if there is a very small number of extreme observations (particularly leverage outliers that are also outlying in x-space), their effect on the estimator is not usually approximated well by an asymptotic argument, because for $n\to\infty$ the "true distribution of outliers" is available, whereas in a real situation with fixed finite $n$ there is no information from one or a few existing outliers where the next one is to be expected. $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2021 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ True, but that is the purpose of the asymptotic conditions on $\mathbf{x}$ --- i.e., to preclude situations where there is some pathological limiting behaviour that would cause high-leverage points to overwhelm the analysis in the limit. For outliers in $Y$-space, that will generally be taken care of by the assumption of finite variance for the error terms. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Apr 25, 2021 at 3:41
  • $\begingroup$ " For outliers in Y-space, that will generally be taken care of by the assumption of finite variance for the error terms." How so? Gross outliers distribution can have finite of very large variance. Also conditions on the x you're referring to are about asymptotic limits, but there are situations in which limits are fine but extremely large n is needed for the asymptotics to kick in. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2021 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Okay, fine, but then if that is the case, should we never apply the CLT to get an approximation? It is always possible that with a very large variance our $n$ may be insufficient, but that is always the risk in using any asymptotic distribution to get an approximating distribution with a finite amount of data. So what is your proposal for using asymptotic distributions? $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Apr 25, 2021 at 12:38
  • $\begingroup$ That's not really the question here, is it? The question asks for the distribution, you write that there's an approximation, which is fine and often useful. I added that this approximation cannot be trusted in some situations, which I'd think is also good to know. Doing some good outlier diagnostic (maybe based on robust estimators) is one possibility to detect such situations. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2021 at 22:27

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