Insurance, in law and economics, is a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of potential financial loss. Insurance is defined as the equitable transfer of the risk of a potential loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for a premium and duty of care.
The timing or occurrence of the loss must be uncertain.
The rate of losses must be relatively predictable: In order to set premiums (prices) insurers must be able to estimate them accurately. This is done using the Law of Large Numbers which states that: The larger the number of homogenous exposures considered, the more closely the losses reported will equal the underlying probability of loss. If the coverage is unique, the insured will pay a correspondingly higher premium. Lloyd's of London often accepts unique coverages. (e.g., the insuring of Tina Turner's legs and Jennifer Lopez's butt)
The losses must be predictable on a macro level: Insurers need to know how much they would be required to pay when the insured-for event occurs. Most types of insurance have maximum levels of payouts, but not all do, notably health insurance.
The loss must be significant: The legal principle of De minimis dictates that trivial matters are not covered. Furthermore, rational insurance uses existing insurance when the transaction costs dictate that filing a claim is not rational.
The loss must not be catastrophic: If the insurer is insolvent, it will be unable to pay the insured. In the United States, there is a system of Guaranty Funds run at the state level to reimburse insured people whose insurance companies have become insolvent.  This program is run by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC).  To avoid catastrophic depletion of their own capital, insurers almost universally purchase reinsurance to protect them against excessively large accumulations of risk in a single area, and to protect them against large-scale catastrophes.
A property or liability insurance policy is a "personal contract," a "conditional contract," a "unilateral contract," a "contract of adhesion," a "contract of indemnity," and a contract which requires that the person insured have an insurable interest at the time of the insured-against contingency.
Property and liability insurance policies cover persons and not property or operations. Although the terms "insured my house" or "insured my motorcycle" are used commonly, they are not technically correct. The contract between the insurer and the insured is a personal contract between an insuring entity and a person(s) and not the object being insured. In other words, the question of whether payment is due upon the occurrence of a contingency, and how such payment will be measured, depends upon economic loss suffered by the person(s).
Property and liability insurance policies are said to be "conditional contracts" because the obligation of the insurer to perform may be conditioned upon the insured satisfying certain conditions.
Only one party is legally bound to contractual obligations after the premium is paid to the insurer. Only the insurer has made a promise of future performance, and only the insurer can be charged with breach of contract.
Property and liability insurance policies are said to be "contracts of adhesion" because the insurer and insured parties are of unequal bargaining power where the insured party cannot negotiate the terms of the contract and must take the offer of the insurer as made. Importantly, the rule of law regarding "contracts of adhesion" is that any ambiguities resolve in favor of the insured.
Property and liability insurance policies are said to be "contracts of indemnity" because the purpose of insurance is to indemnify the insured. The principle of indemnification is that the insured should not profit nor incur an economic loss from the response provided by the policy.
Insurable interest is one wherein economic loss would be suffered from an adverse occurrence to the person(s) insured.
An entity seeking to transfer risk (an individual, corporation, or association of any type) becomes the 'insured' party once risk is assumed by an 'insurer', the insuring party, by means of a contract, defined as an insurance 'policy'. This legal contract sets out terms and conditions specifying the amount of coverage (compensation) to be rendered to the insured, by the insurer upon assumption of risk, in the event of a loss, and all the specific perils covered against (indemnified), for the term of the contract.
When insured parties experience a loss for a specified peril, the coverage entitles the policyholder to make a 'claim' against the insurer for the amount of loss as specified by the policy contract. The fee paid by the insured to the insurer for assuming the risk is called the 'premium'. Insurance premiums from many clients are used to fund accounts set aside for later payment of claims - in theory for a relatively few claimants - and for overhead costs. So long as an insurer maintains adequate funds set aside for anticipated losses, the remaining margin becomes their profit.
A customer might pay one or more premium payments over time. The company collects these payments from one or more customers. If something happens which triggers a claim, the company then pays out a certain amount of money. If, during the lifetime of all of the company's insurance contracts, it pays out less than it has taken in, it makes what is known as an underwriting profit. One measure of an insurance company's performance is their loss ratio (incurred losses and loss-adjustment expenses divided by net earned premium). The loss ratio is added to the expense ratio (underwriting expenses divided by net premium written) to determine the company's combined ratio. The combined ratio is a reflection of the company's overall underwriting profitability. A combined ratio of less than 100 percent indicates a profit, while anything over 100 is a loss. One company that is famous for achieving underwriting profit is American International Group. Berkshire Hathaway, by contrast, is famous for making its money on "float" rather than underwriting profit. Float is the concept that as insurance premiums are collected up front, and claims paid over time (sometimes up to periods of 10 years or more), the insurance companies are able to collect investment income on the money they have reserved for claims that have not occurred yet, or have not yet been paid. Over time, this interest is compounded into significant dollars, particularly for a company as large as Berkshire Hathaway.
In many cases a company's combined ratio is greater than 100 percent, however the company still manages to make money. This is because in between the time the company collects premiums and when it pays out claims, it can invest that money. The return from these investments may offset an underwriting loss resulting in profit. For example, if a company has to pay out 10 percent more than it took in, but made a 20 percent return on its investment, then it made a 10 percent profit. However, since most insurance companies consider it only prudent (and may be mandated to do so by laws controlling insurance businesses in the territory in which they operate) to invest in risk-free government bonds, or other lower risk and lower return forms of investments, it's important that the extra amount it has to pay out compared to what it has to take in is less than the percent return of these investments. If it isn't, the company loses money. The extra amount that a company has to pay out can be considered a "cost of funds" and be compared to an interest rate of the same company borrowing money. Because of this, most insurance companies don't have a goal just to have any amount of profit over the cost of funds, but rather to have this cost of funds be lower than what they would have been able to get by borrowing somewhere else. If this isn't the case, the insurance company does not add any value to their owners, who theoretically could have borrowed money from somewhere else and made the same investments themselves.
Although insurers traditionally depended upon underwriting profit to provide them with operating profit, market forces now require that insurers earn the bulk of their profit on investment income on premiums held pending claims occurrence. This is a form of financial leveraging.
The insurer uses actuarial science to quantify the risk they are willing to assume. Data is generated to approximate future claims, ordinarily with reasonable accuracy. Actuarial science uses statistics and probability to analyze the risks associated with the range of perils covered, and these scientific principles are used by insurers, in conjunction with additional factors, to determine rate structures.
For example, many individuals purchase homeowner's insurance policies by signing a contract paying a premium to an insurance company. If a covered loss occurs, the insurer is obliged by the terms of the contract to honor the insured's claim. For some policyholders, the amount of insurance benefits received from their insurer will greatly exceed the expense of premiums paid. Others may never make a claim or receive any benefit other than the peace of mind rendered by the security of an insurance policy. When averaged, the total claims expense paid by an insurer should be less than the total premiums paid by their policyholders, with the difference allocated to overhead and profit.
Insurance companies also earn investment profits. These are generated by investing premiums received until they are needed to pay claims. This money is called the 'float'. The insurer may make profits or losses from the value change in the float as well as interest or dividends on the float. In the United States, the underwriting loss of property and casualty insurance companies was $142.3 billion in the five years ending 2003. But overall profit for the same period was $68.4 billion, at the result of float. Some insurance industry insiders, most notably Hank Greenberg, do not believe that it is forever possible to sustain a profit from float without an underwriting profit as well, but this opinion is not universally held.
Some people consider insurance a type of wager (particularly as associated with moral hazard) that executes over the policy period. The insurance company bets that you or your property will not suffer a loss while you put money on the opposite outcome. The difference in the fees paid to the insurance company versus the amount for which they can be held liable if an accident happens is roughly analogous to the odds one might expect when betting on a racehorse (for example, 10 to 1). For this reason, a number of religious groups, including the Amish and Muslims, avoid insurance and instead depend on support provided by their communities when disasters strike. This can be thought of as "social insurance," as the risk of any given person is assumed collectively by the community who will all bear the cost of rebuilding. In closed, supportive communities where others can be trusted to step in to rebuild lost property, this arrangement can work.
However, most societies could not effectively support this type of system, and the system will not work for large risks. For very large risks, Western insurance can also run into difficulties. This is the reason why most homeowner's insurance does not cover floods. A company that sells homeowner's insurance in a given city can accurately estimate the number of claims it would have to pay due to fires, tornadoes, and other smaller-scale disasters. However, a flood may impact a large percentage of the city and the company might be unable to deal with this. A prime example of this is the flooding in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. For the same reason, losses due to war and earthquakes are generally excluded. In the case of floods and earthquakes (which are smaller-scale than war) homeowners can purchase separate insurance from national companies with larger resources, which are able to distribute the risk across regions rather than individual buildings.
In gaming or gambling, the game is fixed at the start so that the odds are not affected by the players. However, to obtain certain types of insurance, such as fire insurance, policyholders are often required to conduct risk mitigation practices, such as installing sprinklers and using fireproof building materials to reduce the odds of loss to fire. In addition, after a proven loss, insurers specialize in providing rehabilitation to minimize the total loss.
While insurance is analogous to gambling in terms of risk and reward, the main difference is in the motivation behind the process (risk seeking vs. risk avoidance). When gambling, you are assuming risk that you would not otherwise be exposed to that has the possibility of either a loss or a gain (speculative risk). With insurance, you are managing risk that you could not otherwise avoid, and which does not present the possibility of gain (pure risk). Risk management, the practice of appraising and controlling risk, has evolved as a discrete field of study and practice. Avoiding, mitigating and transferring certain risk creates greater predictability for consumers and business, and allows people and organizations to use risk intelligently to maximize their opportunities.
Historically, gambling has been considered an uninsurable risk. Recent developments, however, have led to the invention and patenting of new types of insurance to protect against gambling losses. An example is United States Patent 6,869,362, "Method and apparatus for providing insurance policies for gambling losses"
Early methods of transferring or distributing risk were practiced by Chinese and Babylonian traders as long ago as the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC respectively. Chinese merchants traveling treacherous river rapids would redistribute their wares across many vessels to limit the loss due to any single capsizing. The Babylonians developed a system which was recorded in the famous Code of Hammurabi, c. 1750 BC, and practiced by early Mediterranean sailing merchants. If a merchant received a loan to fund his shipment, he would pay the lender an additional sum in exchange for the lender's guarantee to cancel the loan should the shipment be stolen.
A thousand years later, the inhabitants of Rhodes invented the concept of the 'general average'. Merchants whose goods were being shipped together would pay a proportionally divided premium which would be used to reimburse any merchant whose goods were jettisoned during storm or sinkage.
The Greeks and Romans introduced the origins of health and life insurance c. 600 AD when they organized guilds called "benevolent societies" which acted to care for the families and funeral expenses of members upon death. Guilds in the Middle Ages served a similar purpose. The Talmud deals with several aspects of insuring goods. Before insurance was established in the late 17th century, "friendly societies" existed in England, in which people donated amounts of money to a general sum that could be used in case of emergency.
Separate insurance contracts (i.e. insurance policies not bundled with loans or other kinds of contracts) were invented in Genoa in the 14th century, as were insurance pools backed by pledges of landed estates. These new insurance contracts allowed insurance to be separated from investment, a separation of roles that first proved useful in marine insurance. Insurance became far more sophisticated in post-Renaissance Europe, and specialized varieties developed.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, the growing importance of London as a center for trade led to rising demand for marine insurance. In the late 1680s, Mr. Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house which became a popular haunt of ship owners, merchants, and ships’ captains, and thereby a reliable source of the latest shipping news. It became the meeting place for parties wishing to insure cargoes and ships, and those willing to underwrite such ventures. Today, Lloyd's of London remains the leading market for marine and other specialist types of insurance, but it works rather differently than the more familiar kinds of insurance.
Insurance as we know it today can be traced to the Great Fire of London, which in 1666 devoured 13,200 houses. In the aftermath of this disaster Nicholas Barbon opened an office to insure buildings. In 1680 he established England's first fire insurance company, "The Fire Office," to insure brick and frame homes.
The first insurance company in the United States provided fire insurance and was formed in Charles Town (modern-day Charleston), South Carolina, in 1732.
Benjamin Franklin helped to popularize and make standard the practice of insurance, particularly against fire in the form of perpetual insurance. In 1752, he founded the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. Franklin's company was the first to make contributions toward fire prevention. Not only did his company warn against certain fire hazards, it refused to insure certain buildings where the risk of fire was too great, such as all wooden houses.
In the United States, regulation of the insurance industry is highly Balkanized, with primary responsibility assumed by individual State insurance departments. Whereas insurance markets have become centralized nationally and internationally, state insurance commissioners operate individually, though at times in concert through a national insurance commissioner's organization. In recent years, some have called for a federal regulatory system for insurance similar to that of the banking industry.
In the State of New York, which has unique laws in keeping with its stature as a global business center, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has been in a unique position to grapple with major national insurance brokerages. Spitzer alleged that Marsh & McLennan steered business to insurance carriers based on the amount of contingent commissions that could be extracted from carriers, rather than basing decisions on whether carriers had the best deals for clients. Several of the largest commercial insurance brokerages have since stopped accepting contingent commissions and have adopted new business models.
Any risk that can be quantified probably has a type of insurance to protect it. Among the different types of insurance are:
A single policy may cover risks in one or more of the above categories. For example, car insurance would typically cover both property risk (covering the risk of theft or damage to the car) and liability risk (covering legal claims from say, causing an accident). A homeowner's insurance policy in the US typically includes property insurance covering damage to the home and the owner's belongings, liability insurance covering certain legal claims against the owner, and even a small amount of health insurance for medical expenses of guests who are injured on the owner's property.
Potential sources of risk that may give rise to claims are known as "perils". Examples of perils might be fire, theft, earthquake, hurricane and many other potential risks. An insurance policy will set out in details which perils are covered by the policy and which are not.
Insurance companies may be classified as
In most countries, life and non-life insurers are subject to different regulations, tax and accounting rules. The main reason for the distinction between the two types of company is that life business is very long term in nature — coverage for life assurance or a pension can cover risks over many decades. By contrast, non-life insurance cover usually covers a shorter period, such as one year.
Insurance companies are generally classified as either mutual or stock companies. This is more of a traditional distinction as true mutual companies are becoming rare. Mutual companies are owned by the policyholders, while stockholders, (who may or may not own policies) own stock insurance companies.
Reinsurance companies are insurance companies that sell policies to other insurance companies, allowing them to reduce their risks and protect themselves from very large losses. The reinsurance market is dominated by a few very large companies, with huge reserves.
Captive Insurance companies may be defined as limited purpose insurance companies established with the specific objective of financing risks emanating from their parent group or groups. This definition can sometimes be extended to include some of the risks of the parent company's customers. In short terms, it is an in-house self-insurance vehicle. Captives may take the form of a "pure" entity (which is a 100% a subsidiary of the self-insured parent company); of a "mutual" captive (which insures the collective risks of industry members) and of an "association" captive (which self-insures individual risks of the members of a professional, commercial or industrial association). Captives represent commercial, economic and tax advantages to their sponsors due to the reductions on costs they help create, the ease for insurance risk management and the flexibility for cash flows they generate. Additionally, they may provide coverage of risks which are neither available nor offered in the traditional insurance market at reasonable prices.
The types of risk that a captive can underwrite for the parent include property damage, public and products liability, professional indemnity, employee benefits, employers liability, motor and medical aid expenses. The captive's exposure to such risks may be limited by the use of reinsurance.
Captives are becoming an increasingly important component of the risk management and risk financing strategy of their parent. This can be understood against the following background:
There are also companies known as 'insurance consultants'. Like a mortgage broker, these companies are paid a fee by the customer to shop around for the best insurance policy amongst many companies .
Similar to an insurance consultant, an 'insurance broker' also shops around for the best insurance policy amongst many companies. However, with insurance brokers, the fee is usually paid in the form of commission from the insurer that is selected rather than directly from the client.
Third Party Administrators are companies that perform underwriting and sometimes claims handling services for insurance companies. These companies often have special expertise that the insurance companies do not have.
Certain life insurance contracts accumulate cash values, which may be taken by the insured if the policy is surrendered or which may be borrowed against. Some policies, such as annuities and endowment policies, are financial instruments to accumulate or liquidate wealth when it is needed. See life insurance.
In many countries, such as the US and the UK, tax law provides that the interest on this cash value is not taxable under certain circumstances. This leads to widespread use of life insurance as a tax-efficient method of saving as well as protection in the event of early death.
Global insurance premiums grew by 9.7% in 2004 to reach $3.3 trillion. This follows 11.7% growth in the previous year. Life insurance premiums grew by 9.8% during the year due to rising demand for annuity and pension products. Non-life insurance premiums grew by 9.4% as premium rates increased. Over the past decade, global insurance premiums rose by more than a half as annual growth fluctuated between 2% and 10%.
Advanced economies account for the bulk of global insurance. With premium income of $1,217bn in 2004, North America was the most important region, followed by the EU ($1,198bn) and Japan ($492bn). The top four countries accounted for nearly two-thirds of premiums in 2004. The US and Japan alone accounted for a half of world insurance, much higher than their 7% share of the global population. Emerging markets accounted for over 85% of the world’s population but generated only 10% of premiums. The volume of UK insurance business totalled $295bn in 2004 or 9.1% of global premiums. 
Financial stability and strength of the insurance company should be a major consideration when purchasing an insurance contract. An insurance premium paid currently provides coverage for losses that might arise many years in the future. For that reason, the viability of the insurance carrier is very important. In recent years, a number of insurance companies have become insolvent, leaving their policyholders with no coverage (or coverage only from a government-backed insurance pool with less attractive payouts for losses). A number of independent rating agencies, such as Best's, provide information and rate the financial viability of insurance companies.
By creating a "security blanket" for its insureds, an insurance company may inadvertently find that its insureds may not be as risk-averse as they should be (since the insured assumes the risk belongs to the insurer). This problem is known to the insurance industry as moral hazard. To reduce their own financial exposure, insurance companies have contractual clauses that mitigate their obligation to provide coverage if the insured engages in some kind of behavior that grossly magnifies their risk of loss or liability.
For example, liability insurance providers do not provide coverage for liability arising from intentional torts committed by the insured. Even if a provider was irrational enough to try to provide such coverage, it is against the public policy of most countries to allow such insurance to exist, and thus it is usually illegal.
Insurance policies can be complex and some policyholders may not understand all the fees, regulation and coverages included in a policy. As a result, people could buy policies at unfavorable terms. In response to these issues, governments often make detailed regulations that set down minimum standards for policies and govern how they may be advertised and sold.
Many individuals purchase policies through an insurance broker. The broker can counsel the policyholder on which coverage to purchase and limitations of the policy. A broker generally holds contracts with many insurers which allows the broker to "shop" the market for the best rates and coverage possible.
Redlining is the practice of some insurance companies to deny the issuance of coverage in specific geographic areas, usually due to an increased likelihood of risk; the validity of the assessment may be real or perceived, though it is often attributed to discrimination.
Evaluation of risk, when an insurer determines a premium or premium rate structure, considers quantifiable factors, including location, credit scores, gender, occupation, marital status, and education level. However, the use of these essential factors, whether inappropriately or not, are often considered to be 'unfair' or discriminatory by some consumers and their advocates, sometimes leading to political disputes about insurers' determination of premiums and possible government intervention to limit the factors used.
A refutation to this is that the job of an insurance underwriter is to properly categorize a given risk as to the likelihood that the loss will occur. Any factor that causes a greater likelihood of loss should in theory, be charged a higher rate. This is a basic principle of insurance and must be followed for insurance companies or groups to operate properly, even for non-profit organizations. Thus, discrimination of potential insureds by legitimate factors is central to insurance. Therefore the only thing that can be considered legitimately "unfair" are practices that discriminate against a given group without actual factors that show that the group is a higher risk. So, eliminating real factors discriminates against other insureds by forcing them to bear part of the cost of the disallowed perceived factors.
Health insurance, which is coverage for individuals to protect them against medical costs, is a highly charged and political issue in the United States, which does not have socialized health coverage. In theory, the market for health insurance provision should function in a manner similar to other insurance coverages, but the skyrocketing cost of health coverage has disrupted markets around the globe, but perhaps most glaringly in the US. Please see health insurance for a discussion of this category.
Dental insurance, like health insurance, is coverage for individuals to protect them against dental costs. Dental insurance usually goes hand-in-hand with health insurance, with most people in the United States receiving it included in their health insurance plan from their employer. Along with receiving dental insurance from your employer, there are ways to receive dental insurance through resellers and companies for individuals and families; although this way tends to be too expensive for most people.
New insurance products can now be protected from copying with a business method patent. This may lead to the more rapid introduction of new insurance products as insurance companies will invest more heavily in new product development if they can be reasonably assured that their patents will keep those products from being copied.
A recent example of a new insurance product that is patented is telematic auto insurance. It was independently invented and patented by a major US auto insurance company, Progressive Auto Insurance (US patent 5,797,134) and a Spanish independent inventor, Salvador Minguijon Perez (European Patent EP0700009B1).
The basic idea of telematic auto insurance is that a driver's behavior is monitored directly while the person drives and this information is transmitted to an insurance company. The insurance company then assesses the risk of that driver having an accident and charges insurance premiums accordingly. A driver that drives a lot of distance at high speed, for example, will be charged a higher rate than a driver that drives small distances at low speed.
A British auto insurance company, Norwich Union, has taken a license to both the Progressive patent and Perez patent. They have made additional investments in infrastructure and developed a commercial offering called "Pay As You Drive" or PAYD.
Many independent inventors are in favor of patenting new insurance products since it gives them protection from big companies when they bring their new insurance products to market. Independent inventors account for 70% of the new US patent applications in this area.
Many insurance executives are opposed to patenting insurance products because it creates a new risk for them. The Hartford insurance company, for example, had to recently pay US$80 million to an independent inventor, Bancorp Services, in order to settle a patent infringement and theft of trade secret lawsuit for a new type of corporate owned life insurance product invented and patented by Bancorp.
There are currently about 150 new patent applications on insurance inventions filed per year in the United States. (Source: Insurance IP Bulletin, December 15, 2005). Only about 20 - 30 patents per year, however, are actually issued.
Certain insurance products and practices have been described as rent seeking by critics. That is, insurance companies have been alleged to have certain products or practices that are only useful due to certain government laws (especially tax laws), and that the insurance industry in these cases generally adds no economic value but instead supports politicians who will continue the legal regime which gives the insurance company these benefits. For example, in the United States the current tax rules generally allow owners of variable annuities (see annuity (US financial products) and variable life insurance (see variable universal life insurance) to invest in the stock market and defer or eliminate paying any taxes until withdrawals are made. Sometimes this tax deferral is the only reason some individuals use these products instead of a mutual fund. Another example is the legal infrastructure which allows life insurance to be held in an irrevocable trust which is used to pay an estate tax while the proceeds itself are immune from the estate tax.
In the casino game , insurance is an optional play that requires the player to bet 1/2 of his current bet to the possibilitiy of the house drawing a blackjack (an ace and a ten), if the house does draw a blackjack, all insured players get their bet back, including the insurance, if not, the insurance is lost and the game continues as normal. A player can only buy insurance if the house open card is an ace, and only at the beginning of his turn.
According to Game Theory, it is statistically unwise to buy insurance, given that the potential win is not enough to justify the risk of losing (there are 13 different cards, and only 4 of them with value ten to make the house draw a blackjack).
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. - T.S. Elliot, 1888-1965