Insurance involves pooling funds from many insured entities (known as exposures) to pay for the losses that some may incur. The insured entities are therefore protected from risk for a fee, with the fee being dependent upon the frequency and severity of the event occurring. In order to be an insurable risk, the risk insured against must meet certain characteristics. Insurance as a financial intermediary is a commercial enterprise and a major part of the financial services industry, but individual entities can also self-insure through saving money for possible future losses.
Adjusting liability insurance claims is particularly difficult because there is a third party involved, the plaintiff, who is under no contractual obligation to cooperate with the insurer and may in fact regard the insurer as a deep pocket. The adjuster must obtain legal counsel for the insured (either inside "house" counsel or outside "panel" counsel), monitor litigation that may take years to complete, and appear in person or over the telephone with settlement authority at a mandatory settlement conference when requested by the judge.
Insurance companies earn investment profits on "float". Float, or available reserve, is the amount of money on hand at any given moment that an insurer has collected in insurance premiums but has not paid out in claims. Insurers start investing insurance premiums as soon as they are collected and continue to earn interest or other income on them until claims are paid out. The Association of British Insurers (gathering 400 insurance companies and 94% of UK insurance services) has almost 20% of the investments in the London Stock Exchange. In 2007, U.S. industry profits from float totaled $58 billion. In a 2009 letter to investors, Warren Buffett wrote, "we were paid $2.8 billion to hold our float in 2008."
Many institutional insurance purchasers buy insurance through an insurance broker. While on the surface it appears the broker represents the buyer (not the insurance company), and typically counsels the buyer on appropriate coverage and policy limitations, in the vast majority of cases a broker's compensation comes in the form of a commission as a percentage of the insurance premium, creating a conflict of interest in that the broker's financial interest is tilted towards encouraging an insured to purchase more insurance than might be necessary at a higher price. A broker generally holds contracts with many insurers, thereby allowing the broker to "shop" the market for the best rates and coverage possible.
Advanced economies account for the bulk of global insurance. With premium income of $1.62 trillion, Europe was the most important region in 2010, followed by North America $1.41 trillion and Asia $1.16 trillion. Europe has however seen a decline in premium income during the year in contrast to the growth seen in North America and Asia. The top four countries generated more than a half of premiums. The United States and Japan alone accounted for 40% of world insurance, much higher than their 7% share of the global population. Emerging economies accounted for over 85% of the world's population but only around 15% of premiums. Their markets are however growing at a quicker pace. The country expected to have the biggest impact on the insurance share distribution across the world is China. According to Sam Radwan of ENHANCE International LLC, low premium penetration (insurance premium as a % of GDP), an ageing population and the largest car market in terms of new sales, premium growth has averaged 15–20% in the past five years, and China is expected to be the largest insurance market in the next decade or two.
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