Insurance companies may be classified into two groups:
- Life insurance companies, which sell life insurance, annuities and pensions products.
- Non-life or property/casualty insurance companies, which sell other types of insurance.
- Standard lines
- Excess lines
In the United States, standard line insurance companies are insurers that have received a license or authorization from a state for the purpose of writing specific kinds of insurance in that state, such as automobile insurance or homeowners' insurance. They are typically referred to as "admitted" insurers. Generally, such an insurance company must submit its rates and policy forms to the state's insurance regulator to receive his or her prior approval, although whether an insurance company must receive prior approval depends upon the kind of insurance being written. Standard line insurance companies usually charge lower premiums than excess line insurers and may sell directly to individual insureds. They are regulated by state laws, which include restrictions on rates and forms, and which aim to protect consumers and the public from unfair or abusive practices. These insurers also are required to contribute to state guarantee funds, which are used to pay for losses if an insurer becomes insolvent.
The subscription room at Lloyd's of London in the early 19th century.
Excess line insurance companies (also known as Excess and Surplus) typically insure risks not covered by the standard lines insurance market, due to a variety of reasons (e.g., new entity or an entity that does not have an adequate loss history, an entity with unique risk characteristics, or an entity that has a loss history that does not fit the underwriting requirements of the standard lines insurance market). They are typically referred to as non-admitted or unlicensed insurers. Non-admitted insurers are generally not licensed or authorized in the states in which they write business, although they must be licensed or authorized in the state in which they are domiciled. These companies have more flexibility and can react faster than standard line insurance companies because they are not required to file rates and forms. However, they still have substantial regulatory requirements placed upon them.
Most states require that excess line insurers submit financial information, articles of incorporation, a list of officers, and other general information. They also may not write insurance that is typically available in the admitted market, do not participate in state guarantee funds (and therefore policyholders do not have any recourse through these funds if an insurer becomes insolvent and cannot pay claims), may pay higher taxes, only may write coverage for a risk if it has been rejected by three different admitted insurers, and only when the insurance producer placing the business has a surplus lines license. Generally, when an excess line insurer writes a policy, it must, pursuant to state laws, provide disclosure to the policyholder that the policyholder's policy is being written by an excess line insurer.
On July 21, 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the Nonadmitted and Reinsurance Reform Act of 2010 ("NRRA"), which took effect on July 21, 2011, and was part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The NRRA changed the regulatory paradigm for excess line insurance. Generally, under the NRRA, only the insured's home state may regulate and tax the excess line transaction.
Insurance companies are generally classified as either mutual or proprietary companies. Mutual companies are owned by the policyholders, while shareholders (who may or may not own policies) own proprietary insurance companies.
Demutualization of mutual insurers to form stock companies, as well as the formation of a hybrid known as a mutual holding company, became common in some countries, such as the United States, in the late 20th century. However, not all states permit mutual holding companies.
Other possible forms for an insurance company include reciprocals, in which policyholders reciprocate in sharing risks, and Lloyd's organizations.
Insurance companies are rated by various agencies such as A. M. Best. The ratings include the company's financial strength, which measures its ability to pay claims. It also rates financial instruments issued by the insurance company, such as bonds, notes, and securitization products.
Reinsurance companies are insurance companies that sell policies to other insurance companies, allowing them to reduce their risks and protect themselves from very large losses. The reinsurance market is dominated by a few very large companies, with huge reserves. A reinsurer may also be a direct writer of insurance risks as well.
Captive insurance companies may be defined as limited-purpose insurance companies established with the specific objective of financing risks emanating from their parent group or groups. This definition can sometimes be extended to include some of the risks of the parent company's customers. In short, it is an in-house self-insurance vehicle. Captives may take the form of a "pure" entity (which is a 100% subsidiary of the self-insured parent company); of a "mutual" captive (which insures the collective risks of members of an industry); and of an "association" captive (which self-insures individual risks of the members of a professional, commercial or industrial association). Captives represent commercial, economic and tax advantages to their sponsors because of the reductions in costs they help create and for the ease of insurance risk management and the flexibility for cash flows they generate. Additionally, they may provide coverage of risks which is neither available nor offered in the traditional insurance market at reasonable prices.
The types of risk that a captive can underwrite for their parents include property damage, public and product liability, professional indemnity, employee benefits, employers' liability, motor and medical aid expenses. The captive's exposure to such risks may be limited by the use of reinsurance.
Captives are becoming an increasingly important component of the risk management and risk financing strategy of their parent. This can be understood against the following background:
- Heavy and increasing premium costs in almost every line of coverage
- Difficulties in insuring certain types of fortuitous risk
- Differential coverage standards in various parts of the world
- Rating structures which reflect market trends rather than individual loss experience
- Insufficient credit for deductibles and/or loss control efforts
There are also companies known as "insurance consultants". Like a mortgage broker, these companies are paid a fee by the customer to shop around for the best insurance policy amongst many companies. Similar to an insurance consultant, an 'insurance broker' also shops around for the best insurance policy amongst many companies. However, with insurance brokers, the fee is usually paid in the form of commission from the insurer that is selected rather than directly from the client.
Neither insurance consultants nor insurance brokers are insurance companies and no risks are transferred to them in insurance transactions. Third party administrators are companies that perform underwriting and sometimes claims handling services for insurance companies. These companies often have special expertise that the insurance companies do not have.
The financial stability and strength of an insurance company should be a major consideration when buying an insurance contract. An insurance premium paid currently provides coverage for losses that might arise many years in the future. For that reason, the viability of the insurance carrier is very important. In recent years, a number of insurance companies have become insolvent, leaving their policyholders with no coverage (or coverage only from a government-backed insurance pool or other arrangement with less attractive payouts for losses). A number of independent rating agencies provide information and rate the financial viability of insurance companies.