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Underwriting in Investing: An In-depth Look with Examples

Updated: Feb 13

The world of finance and investing can seem complicated, but it all hinges on some basic principles. Among these foundational elements is the concept of "underwriting." For investors, understanding underwriting is essential because it plays a significant role in the process of issuing and pricing securities. In this article, we'll dive deep into underwriting, discuss its relevance to investors, and walk through some practical examples.

What is Underwriting?

Underwriting refers to the process where a bank, investment house, or other financial intermediary evaluates the risk of insuring a person or institution and then decides the terms and pricing of that insurance. While the term is commonly associated with insurance, it is also prevalent in the investment world, especially when companies issue new shares or bonds to raise capital.

Why is Underwriting Important for Investors?

Underwriting serves a few primary purposes:

  • Risk Assessment: It helps to identify the risks associated with an investment. This aids in deciding whether the investment is worth it and at what price.

  • Pricing: By assessing the risks, underwriters can price an investment appropriately, ensuring that it is neither overpriced nor underpriced.

  • Facilitating Capital Raising: Companies, governments, or institutions can successfully raise capital through the issuance of stocks, bonds, or other securities with the assistance of underwriters.

The Underwriting Process

The process can be broken down into several stages:

  • Due Diligence: Here, the underwriter investigates the issuer's financial health, prospects, risks, and other pertinent details.

  • Risk Analysis: The underwriter assesses the potential risks of the investment.

  • Pricing: Based on the risk and market conditions, an appropriate price for the security is determined.

  • Distribution: Underwriters may agree to purchase the securities and then resell them to the public, or they might simply facilitate the sale.

Examples of Underwriting in Practice

  • Example 1: Initial Public Offering (IPO): Suppose Company A wants to go public and raise capital by issuing shares. It approaches an investment bank (the underwriter) to assist with the IPO. The bank conducts due diligence, evaluating the company's financials, operations, and market prospects. After understanding the risks and market appetite, the bank might price the share at $20 each. The bank can then agree to buy a certain number of shares from Company A and resell them to the public, bearing the risk if the shares don't sell at the decided price.

  • Example 2: Bond Issuance: Consider a city government wanting to raise funds for a new infrastructure project through bonds. An underwriting firm would evaluate the city's creditworthiness, the project's feasibility, and the current market conditions for municipal bonds. After the analysis, the bonds might be priced to yield 3% annually. The underwriter would then facilitate the sale of these bonds to the public.

Types of Underwriting Agreements

  • Firm Commitment: The underwriter guarantees the sale of the issued securities by buying them outright from the issuer and selling them to the public. They assume the risk of the securities not being sold.

  • Best Efforts: The underwriter does their best to sell the securities at the agreed-upon price but doesn't guarantee the sale.

  • Standby: For rights offerings where existing shareholders are given the right to buy additional shares at a discount, the underwriter agrees to purchase any shares not bought by the current shareholders.

As an investor, recognizing the role of underwriters can offer insights into the quality and risk profile of an investment opportunity. A reputable underwriter's involvement often suggests a certain level of diligence and scrutiny. However, it's crucial not to solely rely on the underwriter's reputation. Always conduct personal research and consider your investment objectives and risk tolerance. Underwriting is a complex yet indispensable part of the financial landscape, offering companies and governments a route to raise capital while providing investors with new opportunities. By understanding its intricacies, investors can make more informed decisions in the marketplace.

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