What Is Cash Flow Underwriting?

Insurance companies may use cash flow underwriting as a pricing strategy when they price an insurance product below the rate of premium required to assume the cost of expected losses. The purpose of this strategy is to generate substantial investment capital from the increased business, which comes from the lower pricing. Cash flow underwriting is a risky pricing strategy.

Understanding Cash Flow Underwriting

Cash flow underwriting is more common in a soft market when a weak economy makes it difficult to attract insurance customers. To compete, an insurance company may lower its premiums. However, at some point the premium will no longer cover the anticipated risk of underwriting the policy.

For example, a homeowner with a home that has outdated plumbing and wiring wishes to get homeowners insurance. The house is at an increased risk of fire or water damage. Usually, all things being equal, the annual premium for such a structure would be higher than an equivalent home with updated systems. However, in a highly competitive market, an insurer might charge a smaller premium and take the higher risk, rather than lose the customer to a competitor.

Gambling with Loss Ratio in Cash Flow Underwriting

An insurer who partakes in cash flow underwriting is betting that losses incurred from the high number of policies it writes will be slow in materializing. Insurance companies set aside a reserve to cover liabilities from policy claims. The amount of reserves is based on a forecast of losses an insurer may face over a period of time. The reserves could be adequate or may fall short of covering its liabilities. 

Losses incurred to premiums earned is known as the loss ratio, a key statistic for assessing the health and profitability of an insurance company. If a company pays $80 in claims for every $160 in collected premiums, the loss ratio is 50%.

In essence, the insurer is going for customer quantity over customer quality. Instead of fewer, higher premiums which offer a safer risk, the company bets on many lower-priced premiums at higher risk. It will then invest the increased cash flow in securities that pay higher rates of return. 

The gamble is the higher investment returns will make up for the difference in pricing, and presumably cover the inevitable claims resulting from the higher risk. The hope is to generate capital quickly in a market where short-term interest rates are rising.

While insurance customers deal with insurance brokers and agents, the insurance company's underwriters work behind the scenes. They are specialists in evaluating the risk of any potential policy the company may sell, and thus the premium paid. Some risks are actuarial, meaning based on statistics and demographics. For example, underwriters know a 21-year-old single man is statistically more likely to have a car accident than a 34-year-old married woman. His car insurance will cost more. However, the older woman is more likely to become pregnant, develop breast cancer, or experience other ailments. As a result, her health insurance will cost more.