Saturday, October 14, 2006

Mommy, Where Do Insurance Companies Come From?

Hi All. Sorry for the long break between posts. I was away for five days at the annual Rotary International Northeastern U.S. conference, and another five wonderful days visiting Mickey and friends in Florida. Nice to get away but somehow life keeps happening behind your back and likes to spring on you when you come home.

In any event, I thought it would be interesting to write a little about the origins of insurance in general, and homeowners insurance in particular. A lot of people tend to think of insurance as one of those pain-in-the-neck things that the State or their bank makes them buy, but the truth is that a lot of the things we like so much, ownership of property being a big one, driving a car another, would be impossible without some mechanism to spread the risk.

A couple of thousand years ago, people lived in mostly small huts that could be rebuilt with a neighbor's help in a couple of days. And if you lived in a big house, you probably had plenty of money, and slaves to do the re-building if there was a fire or other damage. The concept of insuring something of value started with seagoing trade between nations and continents, and so the field of Marine Insurance was born. Marine insurance is the oldest and probably most interesting of all insurance. It continues today both in the Ocean Marine type as well as Inland Marine which is used to write everything from giant cranes and bulldozers to your diamond engagement ring insured on a rider to your homeowners insurance policy.

Back in the early days of shipping trade along the Mediterranean Sea (thing Ancient Greece), ships started to bring gold, spices, silks, and lots of other interesting stuff from foreign ports of call back to sell in their home areas. After a while, the value of the cargoes carried got so high that the ship owner/captain could not afford the risk to the cargo. Although standard shipping rules even in those days did not make the captain responsible for all losses, even if he was not held accountable, he still might lose all the revenue from the sale of a lost cargo, and that could put him out of business and land him in debtor's prison.

So someone came up with the idea that wealthy merchants could absorb all or a part of the loss that might happen from certain agreed-upon perils such as storm loss, stranding, barratry (fraudulent acts of the captain or crew) or other 'perils of the sea'. In return for their promise to pay a certain amount to the owner of the cargo in case of loss, they received a payment from the owner called a 'premium'.

This would be done at the local taverns down near the seaports. A captain would post on a board that he was bringing a certain amount of such and such cargo from a named place, and local merchants and others would write their names under the posting including the amount of risk they were willing to accept. This is the direct beginning of the term 'underwriter', and in a broad way is still the way insurance is transacted by Lloyd's of London, the most famous insurer in the world.

For instance, if someone wants to insure the legs of a famous movie star for $10,000,000, it is presented to Lloyd's or another similar company (Lloyds is actually a group of many syndicated made up of people and organizations with money they would like to invest in this type of insurance). One or more syndicates will step forward and offer to accept all or part of the risk for a certain premium that they calculate.

The people who calculate what rates to charge for insurance are called actuaries, and are some of the best math and accounting people on the planet. They make or break the success of insurance companies, and the good ones are very highly paid for their efforts.

More next time. Meanwhile, for more info visit our site at