Navigating the complex world of derivatives in pension fund management

In the intricate landscape of pension fund management, derivatives hold a unique position. They offer both opportunities for significant enhancement of returns but also the potential for considerable risk if used irresponsibly. As financial instruments, derivatives can also function as powerful tools for the hedging of risks as well as efficient strategic and tactical portfolio management. Yet, the complexity and inherent leverage of certain derivative instruments, require a robust regulatory framework and meticulous risk management strategies to safeguard the interests of pension fund members and beneficiaries.

Recent discussions at a RisCura-hosted seminar, “Derivatives in Pension Funds – Approaches to Managing Risk”, highlighted the necessity for education and precision in managing pension fund assets using derivatives. Experts at the event shared insights on the strategic use of these instruments, emphasising the balance between leveraging their benefits and mitigating associated risks. 

The narrative provided by these experts underscored a comprehensive view of derivatives, discussing their historical roles and the lessons learned from both successes and failures in their application.  

The role of derivatives in pension funds  

Derivatives are financial instruments whose value is tied to the performance of underlying instruments such as assets, indexes, currencies and interest rates. For pension funds, derivatives are employed for several strategic purposes. They can substitute for direct investments, allowing funds to gain market exposure without significant capital outlays, and they are pivotal in hedging strategies to mitigate risks from market fluctuations. 

The utility of derivatives comes intertwined with risks that could be profound without proper oversight, as evidenced by the financial turmoil experienced in 2008. This history underscores the necessity for careful management and regulation of derivative use. 

Understanding derivative regulation  

Regulatory bodies worldwide have intensified their focus on derivatives post-2008, aiming to increase transparency, reduce systemic risk, and protect institutional investors, including pension funds. In South Africa, the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) has been at the forefront of setting conditions for investments in derivative instruments by pension funds. The FSCA Conduct Standard on derivative usage within pension funds, effective May 2024, exemplifies a proactive approach to ensuring that derivatives are used responsibly within pension funds. 

As highlighted at the event by Wilma Mokupo, Head of the Retirement Funds (Prudential Supervision) Department at the FSCA, this regulatory framework mandates that derivatives must only be used in ways that do not involve speculative purposes or leverage the fund’s assets beyond their actual capital. The use of derivatives must align with the overall risk management strategy of the pension fund and be justified on grounds of efficient portfolio management, including cost reduction and hedging risks associated with adverse market movements. 

Effective use of derivatives for portfolio management 

One of the key takeaways of the event was the critical need for education and continuous professional development for those managing pension fund assets. Jonathan Brummer and Videsh Ramdeen from RisCura, emphasised the importance of viewing derivatives as part of a holistic investment strategy during the keynote address. They noted that derivatives can be integral tools used to enhance portfolio performance and also improve portfolio risk management when used correctly. Their session detailed both the historical benefits of derivatives in institutional investment portfolios and the lessons learned from past failures that resulted from irresponsible and abusive usage of these instruments. 

Risk management within derivative usage 

Effective risk management is the linchpin in the use of derivatives in pension funds. At the event, Suvarn Naidoo and Glanville Retief from Khumo Capital discussed comprehensive risk management strategies including trading / execution risk and how to limit market impact, counterparty credit risk and how such risk can be mitigated, as well as legal risk and how, through negotiating favourable terms in the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) agreements, this risk can be mitigated.  They also emphasised the importance of regulations that are moving in the direction of creating an environment that is safe, robust, and stable for funds and for other investors to invest in derivatives.  


As financial markets evolve, so does the role of derivatives in enhancing pension fund portfolios. With well-structured regulatory frameworks and advanced risk management practices, the risks associated with derivatives can be effectively managed. The approach to using these financial instruments should be balanced, leveraging their benefits to enhance returns while safeguarding against risks through stringent compliance and strategic oversight. 

For pension funds and their stakeholders, keeping abreast of regulatory changes, continually refining risk management tactics, and promoting a culture of continuous learning are crucial for effectively applying derivatives. These efforts can help ensure the financial stability and growth of pension fund investments in an ever-changing economic landscape. 

Bella the Bot (RisCura's GenAI)
Videsh Ramdeen - Associate Investment Consultant