Underwriting services are provided by some large specialist financial institutions, such as banks, insurance or investment houses, whereby they guarantee payment in case of damage or financial loss and accept the financial risk for liability arising from such guarantee. An underwriting arrangement may be created in a number of situations including insurance, issue of securities in primary markets, and in bank lending, among others.
The name derives from the Lloyd's of London insurance market. Financial bankers, who would accept some of the risk on a given venture (historically a sea voyage with associated risks of shipwreck) in exchange for a premium, would literally write their names under the risk information that was written on a Lloyd's slip created for this purpose.
Securities underwriting refers to the process by which investment banks raise investment capital from investors on behalf of corporations and governments that are issuing securities (both equity and debt capital). The services of an underwriter are typically used during a public offering in a primary market.
This is a way of distributing a newly issued security, such as stocks or bonds, to investors. A syndicate of banks (the lead managers) underwrites the transaction, which means they have taken on the risk of distributing the securities. Should they not be able to find enough investors, they will have to hold some securities themselves. Underwriters make their income from the price difference (the "underwriting spread") between the price they pay the issuer and what they collect from investors or from broker-dealers who buy portions of the offering.
Risk, exclusivity, and reward
Once the underwriting agreement is struck, the underwriter bears the risk of being unable to sell the underlying securities, and the cost of holding them on its books until such time in the future that they may be favorably sold.
If the instrument is desirable, the underwriter and the securities issuer may choose to enter into an exclusivity agreement. In exchange for a higher price paid upfront to the issuer, or other favorable terms, the issuer may agree to make the underwriter the exclusive agent for the initial sale of the securities instrument. That is, even though third-party buyers might approach the issuer directly to buy, the issuer agrees to sell exclusively through the underwriter.
In summary, the securities issuer gets cash up front, access to the contacts and sales channels of the underwriter, and is insulated from the market risk of being unable to sell the securities at a good price. The underwriter gets a profit from the markup, plus possibly an exclusive sales agreement.
Also if the securities are priced significantly below market price (as is often the custom), the underwriter also curries favor with powerful end customers by granting them an immediate profit (see flipping), perhaps in a quid pro quo. This practice, which is typically justified as the reward for the underwriter for taking on the market risk, is occasionally criticized as unethical, such as the allegations that Frank Quattrone acted improperly in doling out hot IPO stock during the dot com bubble.
- Consumer loan underwriting includes the verification of such items as employment history, salary and financial statements; publicly available information, such as the borrower's credit history, which is detailed in a credit report; and the lender's evaluation of the borrower's credit needs and ability to pay. Examples include mortgage underwriting.
- Commercial (or business) underwriting consists of the evaluation of financial information provided by small businesses including analysis of the business balance sheet including tangible net worth, the ratio of debt to worth (leverage) and available liquidity (current ratio). Analysis of the income statement typically includes revenue trends, gross margin, profitability, and debt service coverage.
Underwriting can also refer to the purchase of corporate bonds, commercial paper, government securities, municipal general-obligation bonds by a commercial bank or dealer bank for its own account or for resale to investors. Bank underwriting of corporate securities is carried out through separate holding-company affiliates, called securities affiliates or Section 20 affiliates.
Insurance underwriters evaluate the risk and exposures of potential clients. They decide how much coverage the client should receive, how much they should pay for it, or whether even to accept the risk and insure them. Underwriting involves measuring risk exposure and determining the premium that needs to be charged to insure that risk. The function of the underwriter is to protect the company's book of business from risks that they feel will make a loss and issue insurance policies at a premium that is commensurate with the exposure presented by a risk.
Each insurance company has its own set of underwriting guidelines to help the underwriter determine whether or not the company should accept the risk. The information used to evaluate the risk of an applicant for insurance will depend on the type of coverage involved. For example, in underwriting automobile coverage, an individual's driving record is critical. However, the type of automobile is actually far more critical. As part of the underwriting process for life or health insurance, medical underwriting may be used to examine the applicant's health status (other factors may be considered as well, such as age & occupation). The factors that insurers use to classify risks are generally objective, clearly related to the likely cost of providing coverage, practical to administer, consistent with applicable law, and designed to protect the long-term viability of the insurance program.
The underwriters may decline the risk or may provide a quotation in which the premiums have been loaded (including the amount needed to generate a profit, in addition to covering expenses) or in which various exclusions have been stipulated, which restrict the circumstances under which a claim would be paid. Depending on the type of insurance product (line of business), insurance companies use automated underwriting systems to encode these rules, and reduce the amount of manual work in processing quotations and policy issuance. This is especially the case for certain simpler life or personal lines (auto, homeowners) insurance. Some insurance companies, however, rely on agents to underwrite for them. This arrangement allows an insurer to operate in a market closer to its clients without having to establish a physical presence.
Two major categories of exclusion in insurance underwriting are moral hazard and correlated losses. With a moral hazard, the consequences of the customer's actions are insured, making the customer more likely to take costly actions. For example, bedbugs are typically excluded from homeowners' insurance to avoid paying for the consequence of recklessly bringing in a used mattress. Insured events are generally those outside the control of the customer, for example (typical in life insurance) death by automobile accident, contrasted with death by suicide. Correlated losses are those that can affect a large number of customers at the same time, thus potentially bankrupting the insurance company. This is why typical homeowner's policies cover damage from fire or falling trees (usually affecting an individual house), but not floods or earthquakes (which affect many houses at the same time).
Other forms of underwriting
Real estate underwriting
In evaluation of a real estate loan, in addition to assessing the borrower, the property itself is scrutinized. Underwriters use the debt service coverage ratio to figure out whether the property is capable of redeeming its own value.
Forensic underwriting is the "after-the-fact" process used by lenders to determine what went wrong with a mortgage. Forensic underwriting refers to a borrower's ability to work out a modification scenario with their current lien holder, not to qualify them for a new loan or a refinance. This is typically done by an underwriter staffed with a team of people who are experienced in every aspect of the real estate field.
Underwriting may also refer to financial sponsorship of a venture, and is also used as a term within public broadcasting (both public television and radio) to describe funding given by a company or organization for the operations of the service, in exchange for a mention of their product or service within the station's programming.
Thomson Financial League Tables
- "Underwriting: The Poetics of Insurance in America, 1722-1872" , by Eric Wertheimer, Stanford University Press, 2006
- "Risk Classification (for All Practice Areas)," Actuarial Standard of Practice No. 12, Actuarial Standards Board, December 2005
- "Lenders scrutinize borrowers," Herald Tribune March 12, 2008
- Current League Tables