What exactly is insurance?

Whenever you start talking to your broker or to a company direct, it’s easy to assume you know exactly what insurance is. You pay a premium and, when you get into trouble, the policy pays out. Except, sometimes, it does not pay as much as you were expecting. So let’s have a quick look at the nuts and bolts of the machine and see what makes it work. According to the experts, insurance is a way of managing risk. What happens is that individuals or businesses pass their risks to a purse holder.

Each individual or business pays a premium into this purse. Think of it this way. The premium is a small guaranteed loss everyone pays every year but, because you can draw down from the purse, you never have to pay a really big loss. In the market for insuring vehicles, everyone is exposed to the same kind of risk. This makes a big class and the so-called law of big numbers applies, i.e. the larger the number of members in a class, the more likely it is the actual will match the predicted results. When you collect traffic accident statistics from all over the country every year for decades, it gets easier to predict the frequency of accidents per driver mile. But if you write commercial insurance against fire, the time, place, cause and the amount lost in each fire is more difficult to predict. You can still insure, but the premiums will be higher to make sure the purse has enough money in it.

It should be obvious that traffic accidents and fires have one thing in common. There’s a specific cause for the loss that follows. This is a key requirement. A business cannot insure against making a loss. There are too many ways in which this might happen. This means insurance is never completely speculative. The policy identifies specific perils. If any of these perils occur, the insurer pays out. In all this, there is a balancing of interests. The loss must be representing a threat to the insured. People do not insure against small amounts. It’s the big bills that are worrying. But the premiums must be affordable. The insurer needs enough money in the purse to pay out all the big bills, cover the costs of administering the service and make a profit. If this makes the premiums too high, no-one will buy the policy. The premium must represent a sufficient saving to be worth buying.

Business insurance is all about putting numbers on the risks. If there’s a fire, how much will it cost to rebuild and restock the shelves, and how much will be lost whilst it’s closed? It’s impossible to write individual policies for everyone so it all comes down to aggregating the cost across everyone at risk. That’s why it’s so important to read the small print of the policy. That’s where the insurer caps the amount that can be paid out. If this was not done, one or two major claims would wipe out the purse and leave all the other policy holders without cover. In the business insurance market, the real problem comes from bundling different risks together. Make sure you know exactly what’s covered and for how much.

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