An insurance company may inadvertently find that its insureds may not be as risk-averse as they might otherwise be (since, by definition, the insured has transferred the risk to the insurer), a concept known as moral hazard. This 'insulates' many from the true costs of living with risk, negating measures that can mitigate or adapt to risk and leading some to describe insurance schemes as potentially maladaptive. To reduce their own financial exposure, insurance companies have contractual clauses that mitigate their obligation to provide coverage if the insured engages in behavior that grossly magnifies their risk of loss or liability.
Property insurance as we know it today can be traced to the Great Fire of London, which in 1666 devoured more than 13,000 houses. The devastating effects of the fire converted the development of insurance "from a matter of convenience into one of urgency, a change of opinion reflected in Sir Christopher Wren's inclusion of a site for 'the Insurance Office' in his new plan for London in 1667." A number of attempted fire insurance schemes came to nothing, but in 1681, economist Nicholas Barbon and eleven associates established the first fire insurance company, the "Insurance Office for Houses," at the back of the Royal Exchange to insure brick and frame homes. Initially, 5,000 homes were insured by his Insurance Office.
In the United States, economists and consumer advocates generally consider insurance to be worthwhile for low-probability, catastrophic losses, but not for high-probability, small losses. Because of this, consumers are advised to select high deductibles and to not insure losses which would not cause a disruption in their life. However, consumers have shown a tendency to prefer low deductibles and to prefer to insure relatively high-probability, small losses over low-probability, perhaps due to not understanding or ignoring the low-probability risk. This is associated with reduced purchasing of insurance against low-probability losses, and may result in increased inefficiencies from moral hazard.
In most countries, life and non-life insurers are subject to different regulatory regimes and different tax and accounting rules. The main reason for the distinction between the two types of company is that life, annuity, and pension 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.
The insured receives a contract, called the insurance policy, which details the conditions and circumstances under which the insurer will compensate the insured. The amount of money charged by the insurer to the Policyholder for the coverage set forth in the insurance policy is called the premium. If the insured experiences a loss which is potentially covered by the insurance policy, the insured submits a claim to the insurer for processing by a claims adjuster. The insurer may hedge its own risk by taking out reinsurance, whereby another insurance company agrees to carry some of the risk, especially if the primary insurer deems the risk too large for it to carry.
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."
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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. The first known insurance contract dates from Genoa in 1347, and in the next century maritime insurance developed widely and premiums were intuitively varied with risks. These new insurance contracts allowed insurance to be separated from investment, a separation of roles that first proved useful in marine insurance.