What Is Underwriting?

Underwriting is the process by which an individual or institution takes on financial risk for a fee. The risk most typically involves loans, insurance, or investments. The term underwriter originated from the practice of having each risk-taker write their name under the total amount of risk they were willing to accept for a specified premium. Although the mechanics have changed over time, underwriting continues today as a key function in the financial world.

2:19

What is Underwriting?

The Basics of Underwriting

Underwriting involves conducting research and assessing the degree of risk in each applicant or entity before assuming that risk. This check helps set fair borrowing rates for loans, establish appropriate premiums to adequately cover the true cost of insuring policyholders, and create a market for securities by accurately pricing investing risk. If the risk is deemed too high, underwriters may refuse coverage.

Underwriting Risk

Risk is the underlying factor in all underwriting. In the case of a loan, the risk has to do with whether the borrower will repay the loan as agreed or will default. With insurance, the risk involves the likelihood that too many policyholders will file claims at once. With securities, the risk is that the underwritten investments will not be profitable.

Underwriters evaluate loans, particularly mortgages, to determine the likelihood that a borrower will pay as promised and that enough collateral is available in the event of default. In the case of insurance, underwriters seek to assess policyholder health and other factors and to spread potential risk among as many people as possible. Underwriting securities, most often done with initial public offerings (IPOs), helps determine the value of the underlying company compared to the risk of funding the IPO.

How Underwriting Sets the Market

Creating a fair and stable market for financial transactions is the chief function of an underwriter. Every debt instrument, insurance policy or IPO carries a certain risk that the end customer will either default, file a claim or fail. This represents a potential loss to the insurer or lender. A big part of the underwriter's job is to weigh the known risk factors and investigate an applicant’s truthfulness to determine the minimum price for providing coverage.

Underwriters help establish the true market price of risk by deciding on a case-by-case basis which transactions they are willing to cover and what rates they need to charge to make a profit. Underwriters also help exclude unacceptably risky applicants – such as unemployed people asking for expensive mortgages, people in poor health who request life insurance, or companies attempting an IPO before they are ready – by rejecting coverage in some cases. This function substantially lowers the overall risk of expensive claims or defaults and allows loan officers, insurance agents, and investment banks to offer more competitive rates to those who are less risky propositions.

[Important: Investors benefit from the underwriting process. Underwriters provide information that can aid a more informed buying decision. Also, an underwriter who holds securities or is the market maker for a security provides liquidity for the security in the form of price stability.] 

Three Types of Underwriting

As noted above, the main types of underwriting are for loans, insurance, and securities.

Loan Underwriting

All loans undergo some form of underwriting. In many cases, underwriting is automated and involves appraising credit history, financial records, and the value of any collateral offered along with other factors that depend on the size and purpose of the loan. Depending on the process and whether a human underwriter is involved, the process can be almost instant or take a few hours or even days or weeks.

Mortgage underwriting is the most common type of loan underwriting that involves a human underwriter, and it is the type of loan underwriting most people face during their lifetime. The underwriter assesses income, liabilities (debt), savings, credit history, credit score, and more depending on individual financial circumstances. Mortgage underwriting typically has a “turn time” of a week or less. Refinancing often takes longer because buyers, who face deadlines, get preferential treatment. Although loan applications can be approved, denied, or suspended, most are “approved with conditions” meaning the underwriter wants clarification or additional documentation.

Insurance Underwriting

With insurance underwriting, the focus is on the potential policyholder – the person seeking health or life insurance. In the past, medical underwriting for health insurance was used to determine how much to charge an applicant based on health and whether to even offer coverage at all, often based on the applicant’s pre-existing conditions. Beginning in 2014, under the Affordable Care Act, insurers were no longer allowed to deny coverage or place limitations based on pre-existing conditions.

Life-insurance underwriting seeks to assess the risk of insuring a potential policyholder based on age, health, lifestyle, occupation, family medical history, hobbies and other factors as determined by the underwriter. Unlike health insurance, life-insurance underwriting is not restricted regarding pre-existing conditions or any other health factors. Life-insurance underwriting can result in approval along with a whole range of coverage amounts, prices, exclusions, and conditions or outright rejection.

Securities Underwriting

Securities underwriting, which seeks to assess risk and the appropriate price of a particular security – most often as it relates to an initial public offering (IPO) – is performed on behalf of a potential investor, often an investment bank. Based on the results of the underwriting process, an investment bank would buy (underwrite) securities issued by the company attempting the IPO and then sell those securities in the market. Underwriting ensures that the IPO company will raise the amount of capital needed and provides the underwriters a premium or profit for the service they provide. Investors benefit from the vetting process underwriting provides and the ability it gives them to make an informed investing decision.

Underwriting in the financial market can involve individual stocks as well as debt securities including government, corporate, or municipal bonds. Underwriters or their employers purchase these securities to resell them for a profit either to investors or dealers (who sell them to other buyers). When more than one underwriter or group of underwriters is involved, this is known as an underwriter syndicate.

Key Takeaways:

  • Underwriters assess the degree of risk of insurers' business.
  • Underwriting helps set fair borrowing rates for loans, establish appropriate premiums, and creates a market for securities by accurately pricing investing risk.
  • Underwriting ensures that an IPO company will raise the amount of capital needed and provides the underwriters a premium or profit for their services.

Fast Fact: Insurance underwriters assess the risk of insurers' new and current business using specialized tools to ensure and maintain a profitable book of business for the insurer.