Marine Insurance, General Average, Mesopotamia, Genoa, Middle Class, Capitalism, London Coffeehouses and Lloyd’s of London

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 3rd, 2012

History 101

It was in Genoa that Marine Insurance became a Standalone Industry

Risk management dates back to the dawn of civilization.  Perhaps the earliest device we used was fire.  Fire lit up the caves we moved into.  And scared the predators out.  As we transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming we gathered and stored food surpluses to help us through less bountiful times.  To avoid famine.  As artisans rose up and created a prosperous middle class we also created defensive military forces.  To protect that prosperous middle class from outsiders looking to plunder it.

As we put valuable cargoes on ships and sent them long distances over the water we encountered a new kind of risk.  The risk that these cargoes wouldn’t make it to their destinations.  So we created marine insurance.  Including something called ‘general average’.  An agreement where the several shippers shared the cost of any loss of cargo.  If they had to jettison some cargo overboard to save the rest of the cargo or to save the ship.  Some of the proceeds from the cargo they delivered paid for the cargo they didn’t deliver.  Some merchants who borrowed money to finance a shipment paid a little extra.  A risk ‘premium’.  Should the shipment not reach its destination the lender would forgive the loan.

So how long has marine insurance been around?  A long time.  Some of these practices were noted in the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1755 B.C.).  For ancient Mesopotamia was a trading civilization.  That shipped on the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries.  Out into the Arabian sea.  And beyond.  Following the coasts until advances in navigation and sail power took them farther from land.  The Greeks and Romans insured their valuable cargoes, too.  As did the Italian city-states that followed them.  Who ruled Mediterranean trade.  And it was in Genoa that marine insurance became a standalone industry.  No longer bundled with other contracts for an additional fee.

As the British Maritime Industry took off so did Lloyd’s of London

But the cargoes got larger.  And the voyages went farther.  Until they were crossing the great oceans.  Increasing the chances that this cargo wasn’t going to make it to its destination.  And when they didn’t the financial losses were larger than ever before.  Because the ships were larger than ever before.  So as the center of shipping moved from the Mediterranean to the ocean trade routes plied by the Europeans (Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands and England) the insurance industry followed.  And took the concept of risk management to new levels.

With trade came a prosperous middle class.  Where wealth was no longer the privilege of landholders.  Capitalism transferred that wealth to manufacturers, bankers, merchants, ship owners and, of course, insurers.  You didn’t have to own land anymore to be rich.  All you needed was skill, ability and drive.  It was a brave new world.  And these new capitalists gathered together in London coffeehouses to discuss business.  Including one owned by Edward Lloyd.  On Tower Street.  Where those particularly interested in shipping came to learn the latest in this industry.  And it was where shippers and merchants came to find underwriters to insure their ships and cargoes.

This was the birth of Lloyd’s of London.  And as the British maritime industry took off so did Lloyd’s of London.  As the British Empire spread across the globe international trade grew to new heights.  The Royal Navy protected the sea lanes for that trade.  The British Army protected their far-flung empire.  And Lloyd’s of London insured that valuable cargo.  It was a very symbiotic relationship.  All together they made the British Empire rich.  To show their appreciation of the Royal Navy making this possible Lloyd’s set up a fund to provide for those wounded in the service of their county following Lord Nelson’s victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar.  They continue to provide support for veterans today.  In short, Lloyd’s of London was the place to go to meet your global insurance needs.  From marine insurance they branched into providing ‘inland marine’ insurance needs.  Providing risk management to property beyond ships plying the world’s oceans. 

The Purpose of Insurance is to Let Life Go On after Unexpected and Catastrophic Events

Cuthbert Heath led Lloyd’s in the development of the non-marine insurance business.  Underwriting policies for among other things earthquake and hurricane insurance coverage.   And Lloyd’s helped to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.  With Heath ordering that they pay all of their policies in full irrespective of their policy terms.  They could do that because they were profitable.  Which is a good thing.  Insurers need to be profitable to pay these large claims without being forced out of business.  Which is why when the Titanic sunk in 1912 they were able to pay all policies in full.  And to continue on insuring the shippers and merchants that followed Titanic.  To allow life to proceed after these great tragedies.  And they would do it time and again.  Following 9/11.  And Hurricane Katrina.

This is the purpose of insurance.  Risk management.  So unexpected and catastrophic events don’t end life as we know it.  But, instead, it allows us to carry on.  Even after some of the worst disasters.  Because life must go on.  And that’s what insurance does.  Even people who rely on a particular body part for their livelihood have gone to Lloyd’s to buy insurance.  Perhaps the most famous being Betty Grable.  Who insured her legs for $1 million in 1940.  Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu has a lucrative endorsement with a shampoo company.  And insured his long hair for $1 million.  Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards insured his hands for $1.6 million.  America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) has an endorsement deal with a toothpaste company.  And they insured her smile for $10 million.  Even ‘the Boss’ Bruce Springsteen insured his voice for $6 million. 

People hate insurance companies.  Because they don’t understand how insurance works.  For they only know that they pay a lot in premiums and never receive anything in return.  But this is the way risk management is supposed to work.  And we need risk management.  We need insurance companies.  And we need insurance companies to be profitable.  Meaning that most of us will never see anything in return for all of our premium payments.  So these companies can pay for the large losses of the few who sadly do see something in return for all of their payments.  For insurance companies protect our wealth.  And earning potential.  So life can go on.  Whether we’re raising a family and planning for our children’s future.  Or taking precautions for some unforeseen accident to one of our body parts that may limit our future earning potential.

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