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Working with Circular references in Excel

Pages in this article

  1. Types
  2. Calculation settings
  3. Setting up
  4. Detecting

Properly setting up circular references

Whereas I am no fan of using circular references, they can be beneficial to your model and really solve the problem you are trying to solve. So here is some advice on how to properly work with them.

Breaking the circles and setting initial values

In order to prevent your model from running into trouble, make sure there is a quick way to break each circle. Circular reference chains are risky in that if any of the cells inside a circle inadvertently yields an error value (e.g. a #DIV/0!), your model might not be able to recover and keeps showing error values.

What you can do is have (at least) one cell within each circle which contains an IF function, which -in turn- tests the value of a switch cell. If the switch cell contains anything, the circle is broken and a default value from another cell is taken, instead of the cell that is part of the circular reference chain.

Suppose you created this hypothetic circle:

A simple circular chain
A simple circular chain

To get the behavior I just described, I replace the formula in cell C3 with:


Your sheet should now look like this:

A simple circular chain which you can break
A simple circular chain which you can break

Now test your new breakable chain by entering a 1 in cell B1. Cell C3 now will get an initial value of 10 from cell B2. Clear cell B1 to restore the circle.

You can combine the breaker cell with the initial value cell by modifying the formula a bit:


This way, you can enter a starting value in cell B1. This breaks the circular chain and sets the starting value. Remove the starting value to start calculating. The disadvantage of combining the break cell and starting value cell is that you loose the starting value as soon as you start the iteration because you have to empty the starting value cell to do so.

Does your model converge?

A big problem with circular references is that you have to pay attention whether or not your model yields stable results in all circumstances. Iterative calculations can be in these states:

  1. The calculation converges

    A converging calculation reaches a stable end result, where the last result does not differ more than a fraction from the one-but-last result. Basically, this difference should be less than or equal to the "Maximum Change" setting in your calculation settings.

  2. The calculation diverges

    When the calculation diverges, things get out of hand: your values keep increasing or decreasing, never to reach a stable end result. The "model" I showed above is an example of a diverging chain. A calculation with results that switch signs (alternating between positive and negative, but with an increasing absolute value) between iterations is also considered to be divergent.

  3. The calculation oscillates

    The model keeps switching between two (or more) end results.

  4. The calculation results do not change, but are incorrect

    This is the hardest situation to detect, as you may be under the impression you have reached a solution to your problem. I advise you to find a way to check your results; Are they correct?

So you want to have a converging calculation, I assure you.

One way to check for converging calculation is by setting the maximum iterations to 1. That way you can check the intermediate values by hitting F9, Excel will do one iteration for each press of the F9 key. Pay attention to the results and you'll see whether your calculation converges.

An alternative approach: have VBA control the circles

An alternative approach to monitor circular reference calculations is by handing over control of the iteration to VBA.

The method I propose here is to break the circles and use intermediate cells which are controlled by VBA to pass on their results to the other cells which used to form the circular reference chain. VBA will perform the iteration and by using some additional cells, the code can closely monitor the results and act accordingly.

For this I took an example from John Walkenbach’s Excel 2010 Bible. A company donates a percentage of its profit after taxes to charity. But since donations to charity are tax-deductible, the donation depends on the tax, which in turn (partly) depends on the donation. A circular reference!

Worksheet setup

The figure below shows a spreadsheet with the formulas in place:

Circular reference calculating donation

The basic principle of the VBA code is that it looks for named ranges in the file which match names like Iter000, Iter001, Iter002, ... The number is unlimited.

To set the model up for the VBA handled iteration these steps are needed.

General settings needed:

The model changes needed:

Now you have broken the circular reference chain. This is what my example looks like, with the formulas in place:

Worksheet setup, formulas

The VBA code (see below) takes the Value from the named range Iter### and copies it onto the cell to the immediate right of the named range. The code detects a calculation of Excel and automatically repeats that calculation after copying the Iter### results to their right. It does so the number of times set up in Iterations.

I have also set up a conditional format on range A8:E8:

Worksheet setup, Conditional format

The VBA code does not check whether the condition(s) is (are) met, this is handled by the conditional formatting. It is quite easy to update the VBA code to check whether all conditions are met at the end of an iteration and if not, display a warning message.


Here is a sample file for you to download.

The VBA code

First I'll just list all code. Below you will find an explanation...

' Module    : mIterate
' Company   : JKP Application Development Services (c)
' Author    : Jan Karel Pieterse
' Created   : 10-02-2015
' Purpose   : Handles iteration of a (set of) circular reference(s)
Option Explicit

Dim mlIterations As Long
Dim mlMaxIterations As Long

Const APP_NAME As String = "VBA assisted iteration example"

Public Sub EnableIterations()
    Application.OnCalculate = "HandleIterations"
End Sub

Public Sub DisableIterations()
    Application.OnCalculate = ""
End Sub

Public Sub HandleIterations()
    mlMaxIterations = ThisWorkbook.Names("Iterations").RefersToRange.Value
    If mlIterations >= mlMaxIterations Then
        mlIterations = 0
        Application.StatusBar = False
        Exit Sub
        mlIterations = mlIterations + 1
        Application.StatusBar = "Calculating circular references. Iteration # " & mlIterations
    End If
End Sub

Private Function HasIterationFinished() As Boolean
    Dim oName As Name
    Dim oWs As Worksheet
    HasIterationFinished = False
    For Each oName In ThisWorkbook.Names
        If LCase(oName.Name) Like "iter###" Then
            With oName.RefersToRange
                If CStr(ThisWorkbook.Names(Replace(oName.Name, "Iter", "IterIsOK")).RefersToRange.Value) = "1" Then
                    HasIterationFinished = True
                    Exit Function
                End If
            End With
        End If
End Function

Private Sub CopyIterationValues()
    Dim oName As Name
    For Each oName In ThisWorkbook.Names
        If LCase(oName.Name) Like "iter###" Then
            With oName.RefersToRange
                On Error Resume Next
                ThisWorkbook.Names(Replace(oName.Name, "Iter", "IterResult")).RefersToRange.Value = .Value
                On Error GoTo 0
            End With
        End If
End Sub
Entry point routines

The code has two so-called entry point routines, routines called directly by a user action:

EnableIterations and DisableIterations. These two routines are called by the two buttons on the worksheet. They do exactly what their names state.

EnableIterations tells Excel to call HandleIterations after each completion of a calculation.

Other routines

HandleIterations first turns off the OnCalculate event by calling DisableIterations. This is done because inside HandleIterations we are asking Excel to recalculate. At that point we do not want HandleIterations to be called again as we want to control when exactly that happens.

For as long as the current number of iterations is less than the maximum number of Iterations, the routine copies the iteration result to its adjacent cell using the routine called CopyIterationValues. If the maximum # of iterations has been reached, the number of iterations is reset to zero and the iteration chain is terminated.

Note that the code also contains a function HasIterationFinished. Currently this function is not used, but you could include the function in HandleIterations to show a message to the user when the iteration has not reached an end result matching your criteria.




Showing last 8 comments of 21 in total (Show All Comments):


Comment by: Ted Eggleton (16-6-2014 09:49:06) deeplink to this comment

Thank you for a prompt response but I have to say it is not very helpful!:-(
This is a simple A=A+1 type of requirement that works in itself but screws up the rest of the workbook and by implication all other workbooks accessed by that particular Excel instance.
Essentially, what you are saying is don't use reiteration.

Comment by: Jan Karel Pieterse (16-6-2014 10:27:12) deeplink to this comment

Hi Ted,

Let me make that a bit more precise: Do not use circular references unless there is no other way.

Many calculations requiring circular references can be done using built-in worksheet functions that do the required iterations internally. Look in help at the financial functions (like PMT), I am quite sure there should be one there that does the calculation you require without needing to set up iterations.

Comment by: Ted (20-6-2014 10:26:42) deeplink to this comment

Problem solved. Many thanks for your assistance

Comment by: Norman Hicks (25-9-2014 22:52:49) deeplink to this comment

When do you plan to write the article about passing iterative control to VBA? I use circular references to model various industrial processes, and I would like your ideas regarding how to accomplish this. One situation that frequently occurs is having "nested" loops. I'd potentially like to be able to declare a priority level that would allow "inner loops" to iterate to convergence before proceeding with the calculation of given iteration of the "outer" loop.An example would be a flow balance where the "outer" loop would be the balance, and an "inner" loop would be a recursive determination of the applicable friction factor. Thus for each change in conditions constituting an iteration of the "outer" loop I would need to compute the friction factor by looping it to convergence. We also run into this situation where we assemble plant wide models where each machine may have a loop, and the machines are connected in some type of circuit such that to complete an iterative loop for the plant each machine would need to loop to convergence as encountered before proceeding with the iteration for the plant. I really appreciate your work and everything that you have shared on this site. Any ideas or assistance are greatly appreciated.

Comment by: Jan Karel Pieterse (26-9-2014 11:46:41) deeplink to this comment

Hi Norman,

To be honest, it sort of disappeared under my radar :-)
My biggest problem is that I do not have a good example model to demonstrate the technique with. If anyone does have a model (perhaps not as complex as yours :-) ), please sahre it with me so I can have a look at it and perhaps use it as the basis for the article!

Comment by: Eric (11-2-2015 14:25:33) deeplink to this comment

Hi Jan Karel,

Obviously, your example is not about calculating in itself, but to provide an example for the benefit of circular reference.

Based on this example, you can also calculate the amount of charity with a "simple" formula:

Charity = ((100% - Taxpercentage)* Revenu) -((100% - Taxpercentage)*Expenses) / ((100%/Charity-percentage)+(100%-Taxpercentage)

With regard to VBA would recursion may also be a method?
Have not tested it myself, just an idea, I have my iterative calculation (always) disabled

Anyways; Thanks for sharing!

Comment by: Eric (11-2-2015 14:35:47) deeplink to this comment

forget my remark/comment about recursion, I see it's already in there ;-)

Comment by: Jan Karel Pieterse (11-2-2015 16:10:56) deeplink to this comment

Hi Eric,

Of course you are right. I just wanted to share this to show an alternative method to control the iteration. The method shown here makes it possible to do problem-specific things, like detecting instabilities in the iteration.

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