insurance or assurance, device for indemnifying or guaranteeing an individual against loss. Reimbursement is made from a fund to which many individuals exposed to the same risk have contributed certain specified amounts, called premiums. Payment for an individual loss, divided among many, does not fall heavily upon the actual loser. The essence of the contract of insurance, called a policy, is mutuality. The major operations of an insurance company are underwriting, the determination of which risks the insurer can take on; and rate making, the decisions regarding necessary prices for such risks. The underwriter is responsible for guarding against adverse selection, wherein there is excessive coverage of high risk candidates in proportion to the coverage of low risk candidates. In preventing adverse selection, the underwriter must consider physical, psychological, and moral hazards in relation to applicants. Physical hazards include those dangers which surround the individual or property, jeopardizing the well-being of the insured. The amount of the premium is determined by the operation of the law of averages as calculated by actuaries. By investing premium payments in a wide range of revenue-producing projects, insurance companies have become major suppliers of capital, and they rank among the nation's largest institutional investors.
Common Types of Insurance
Life insurance, originally conceived to protect a man's family when his death left them without income, has developed into a variety of policy plans. In a "whole life" policy, fixed premiums are paid throughout the insured's lifetime; this accumulated amount, augmented by compound interest, is paid to a beneficiary in a lump sum upon the insured's death; the benefit is paid even if the insured had terminated the policy. Under "universal life," the insured can vary the amount and timing of the premiums; the funds compound to create the death benefit. With "variable life," the fixed premiums are invested in a portfolio (with earning reinvested), and the death benefit is based on the performance of the investment. In "term life," coverage is for a specified time period (e.g., 5–10 years); such plans do not build up value during the term. Annuity policies, which pay the insured a yearly income after a certain age, have also been developed. In the 1990s, life insurance companies began to allow early payouts to terminally ill patients.
Fire insurance usually includes damage from lightning; other insurance against the elements includes hail, tornado, flood, and drought. Complete automobile insurance includes not only insurance against fire and theft but also compensation for damage to the car and for personal injury to the victim of an accident (liability insurance); many car owners, however, carry only partial insurance. In many states liability insurance is compulsory, and a number of states have instituted so-called no-fault insurance plans, whereby automobile accident victims receive compensation without having to initiate a liability lawsuit, except in special cases. Bonding, or fidelity insurance, is designed to protect an employer against dishonesty or default on the part of an employee. Title insurance is aimed at protecting purchasers of real estate from loss by reason of defective title. Credit insurance safeguards businesses against loss from the failure of customers to meet their obligations. Marine insurance protects shipping companies against the loss of a ship or its cargo, as well as many other items, and so-called inland marine insurance covers a vast miscellany of items, including tourist baggage, express and parcel-post packages, truck cargoes, goods in transit, and even bridges and tunnels. In recent years, the insurance industry has broadened to guard against almost any conceivable risk; companies like Lloyd's will insure a dancer's legs, a pianist's fingers, or an outdoor event against loss from rain on a specified day.
See also health insurance; social welfare; workers' compensation.
The History of Insurance
The roots of insurance might be traced to Babylonia, where traders were encouraged to assume the risks of the caravan trade through loans that were repaid (with interest) only after the goods had arrived safely—a practice resembling bottomry and given legal force in the Code of Hammurabi (c.2100 BC). The Phoenicians and the Greeks applied a similar system to their seaborne commerce. The Romans used burial clubs as a form of life insurance, providing funeral expenses for members and later payments to the survivors.
With the growth of towns and trade in Europe, the medieval guilds undertook to protect their members from loss by fire and shipwreck, to ransom them from captivity by pirates, and to provide decent burial and support in sickness and poverty. By the middle of the 14th cent., as evidenced by the earliest known insurance contract (Genoa, 1347), marine insurance was practically universal among the maritime nations of Europe. In London, Lloyd's Coffee House (1688) was a place where merchants, shipowners, and underwriters met to transact business. By the end of the 18th cent. Lloyd's had progressed into one of the first modern insurance companies. In 1693 the astronomer Edmond Halley constructed the first mortality table, based on the statistical laws of mortality and compound interest. The table, corrected (1756) by Joseph Dodson, made it possible to scale the premium rate to age; previously the rate had been the same for all ages.
Insurance developed rapidly with the growth of British commerce in the 17th and 18th cent. Prior to the formation of corporations devoted solely to the business of writing insurance, policies were signed by a number of individuals, each of whom wrote his name and the amount of risk he was assuming underneath the insurance proposal, hence the term underwriter. The first stock companies to engage in insurance were chartered in England in 1720, and in 1735, the first insurance company in the American colonies was founded at Charleston, S.C. Fire insurance corporations were formed in New York City (1787) and in Philadelphia (1794). The Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia sponsored (1759) the first life insurance corporation in America, for the benefit of Presbyterian ministers and their dependents. After 1840, with the decline of religious prejudice against the practice, life insurance entered a boom period. In the 1830s the practice of classifying risks was begun.
The New York fire of 1835 called attention to the need for adequate reserves to meet unexpectedly large losses; Massachusetts was the first state to require companies by law (1837) to maintain such reserves. The great Chicago fire (1871) emphasized the costly nature of fires in structurally dense modern cities. Reinsurance, whereby losses are distributed among many companies, was devised to meet such situations and is now common in other lines of insurance. The Workmen's Compensation Act of 1897 in Britain required employers to insure their employees against industrial accidents. Public liability insurance, fostered by legislation, made its appearance in the 1880s; it attained major importance with the advent of the automobile.
In the 19th cent. many friendly or benefit societies were founded to insure the life and health of their members, and many fraternal orders were created to provide low-cost, members-only insurance. Fraternal orders continue to provide insurance coverage, as do most labor organizations. Many employers sponsor group insurance policies for their employees; such policies generally include not only life insurance, but sickness and accident benefits and old-age pensions, and the employees usually contribute a certain percentage of the premium.
Since the late 19th cent. there has been a growing tendency for the state to enter the field of insurance, especially with respect to safeguarding workers against sickness and disability, either temporary or permanent, destitute old age, and unemployment (see social security). The U.S. government has also experimented with various types of crop insurance, a landmark in this field being the Federal Crop Insurance Act of 1938. In World War II the government provided life insurance for members of the armed forces; since then it has provided other forms of insurance such as pensions for veterans and for government employees.
After 1944 the supervision and regulation of insurance companies, previously an exclusive responsibility of the states, became subject to regulation by Congress under the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Until the 1950s, most insurance companies in the United States were restricted to providing only one type of insurance, but then legislation was passed to permit fire and casualty companies to underwrite several classes of insurance. Many firms have since expanded, many mergers have occurred, and multiple-line companies now dominate the field. In 1999, Congress repealed banking laws that had prohibited commercial banks from being in the insurance business; this measure was expected to result in expansion by major banks into the insurance arena.
In recent years insurance premiums (particularly for liability policies) have increased rapidly, leaving unprecedented numbers of Americans uninsured. Many blame the insurance conglomerates, contending that U.S. citizens are paying for bad risks made by the companies. Insurance companies place the burden of guilt on law firms and their clients, who they say have brought unreasonably large civil suits to court, a trend that has become so common in the United States that legislation has been proposed to limit lawsuit awards. Catastrophic earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires in late 1980s and the 90s have also strained many insurance company's reserves.
See R. I. Mehr, Principles of Insurance (1985); E. J. Vaughn, Fundamentals of Risk and Insurance (1986).