Numerical Optimization

The goal: minimize \(f(x)\) subject to \(l \le x \le u\) where

  • \(x\) is a vector
  • \(l, u\) are lower and upper bounds
  • \(f(x)\) returns a scalar

Two basic approaches: use gradients or gradient-free.


  • when gradient based algorithms work, they are much faster than gradient-free ones
  • gradient-free algorithms tend to be more robust / more likely to find the minimum

Gradient-Free Algorithms

The leading candidate is Nelder-Mead.

The idea can be visualized for the 2D case (\(x\) is length 2). Start from a triangle and try to stretch it or flip it over until you find a point that is better than any one previously known. Repeat until you can’t make any more progress.

This simple algorithm is surprisingly robust. If speed is not a major issue, this is a good starting point (see guvGuide).

In matlab, the algorithm is fminsearch.

Gradient-Based Algorithms

The idea: evaluate enough points to build an approximation of the function to be optimized around the current point (typically quadratic). Then try to find a better point around the minimum implied by the approximate function.

In Matlab, one algorithm is fmincon.


  • The vast majority of gradient based algorithms assume that the objective function can be solved to very high precision. This is rarely the case in economic problems.
  • If the objective function is not continuous in \(x\), gradient based algorithms tend to have problems. They try to construct function approximations using very small step sizes. This is an issue when models are solved using simulated individual histories, especially with discrete choice.
  • imfil is one of the few (Matlab) solvers that can handle noisy problems.


There is no way to guarantee that a solver finds a global minimum. Especially gradient based algorithms like to get stuck at local minima. The only way of mitigating the problem: run the solver from many starting points (expensive).

Solver Collections

Matlab’s own solvers (in the Optimization toolbox) are not always state of the art. It is worth experimenting with alternatives.

For Matlab, a good one is NLOpt.

A list of solvers is here and here.

Tips and Tricks

Before passing your arguments into a solver, run them through a transformation that makes them lie in a fixed interval (e.g. \([1,2]\)). Solvers like well-scaled guesses. The transformation makes it easier for them.