A Design-Based Perspective on Synthetic Control Methods

23 Jan 2021  ·  Lea Bottmer, Guido Imbens, Jann Spiess, Merrill Warnick ·

Since their introduction in Abadie and Gardeazabal (2003), Synthetic Control (SC) methods have quickly become one of the leading methods for estimating causal effects in observational studies in settings with panel data. Formal discussions often motivate SC methods by the assumption that the potential outcomes were generated by a factor model. Here we study SC methods from a design-based perspective, assuming a model for the selection of the treated unit(s) and period(s). We show that the standard SC estimator is generally biased under random assignment. We propose a Modified Unbiased Synthetic Control (MUSC) estimator that guarantees unbiasedness under random assignment and derive its exact, randomization-based, finite-sample variance. We also propose an unbiased estimator for this variance. We document in settings with real data that under random assignment, SC-type estimators can have root mean-squared errors that are substantially lower than that of other common estimators. We show that such an improvement is weakly guaranteed if the treated period is similar to the other periods, for example, if the treated period was randomly selected. While our results only directly apply in settings where treatment is assigned randomly, we believe that they can complement model-based approaches even for observational studies.

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