Qwerty Maniac and His Keyboard

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

How an insurance company makes money

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.


So thats how they earn eh? :P

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