* Deficit set to balloon to 1-2 billion pounds
* Could drive Tata Steel UK into insolvency without action
* Pension scheme’s future crucial to merger with Thyssenkrupp (Adds details)
By Maytaal Angel and Carolyn Cohn
LONDON, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Tata Steel UK’s pension scheme deficit is set to balloon to 1-2 billion pounds ($1.25-$2.5 billion) and Britain’s largest steelmaker believes it could face insolvency unless a way can be found to tackle it, the scheme’s trustee has told members.
Indian parent company Tata Steel has held talks to merge its European assets with Germany’s Thyssenkrupp, but the success of those talks hinges on Tata being able to separate itself from its British pension scheme.
The steelmaker, whose UK unit lost 2 billion pounds in the five years to March 2016, is looking for regulatory approval to spin off the 15 billion pound pension scheme into a standalone entity, cut benefits and continue trading.
The trustee for the scheme warned members in a letter that it expects to report the 1 billion-2 billion pound deficit at its next actuarial valuation at the end of March. The last actuarial deficit valuation was 485 million pounds.
In the letter seen by Reuters, the trustee said the deficit has surged because Tata Steel UK might no longer be able to get funding from its parent, meaning the trustee would have to make risk-averse investments that would likely cut returns.
“A deficit of this magnitude might require contributions of 100-200 million pounds each year for 15 years,” said the trustee for Tata Steel’s British Steel Pension Scheme (BSPS).
“Tata Steel UK has confirmed it cannot afford to make deficit recovery contributions and indicated that without action, the likely outcome is that it would become insolvent,” the trustee added.
Thyssenkrupp CEO Heinrich Hiesinger told German daily Handelsblatt, in an interview to be published on Friday, that Tata Steel must resolve the pension deficit at its British and Dutch operations before any merger of its steel operations with the German company.
The BSPS is one of Britain’s largest final salary pension schemes, with 130,000 members, but only about one in 13 members currently contributes to it. Tata inherited the scheme when it bought Corus, formerly state-owned British Steel, in 2007.
If Tata Steel UK fails, its pension scheme would fall into the Pension Protection Fund - a lifeboat for failing schemes which would cut benefit for all members, with those not yet drawing their pensions hardest hit.
“The Trustee has therefore been in discussions with Tata Steel, the government, the pensions regulator, the PPF ... about how to separate the BSPS from Tata Steel in a way that secures better outcomes than entry into the PPF,” it said.
One plan under discussion involves closing the scheme to future accrual, spinning it off from Tata Steel UK, and offering members a choice between staying in it and getting PPF compensation, or moving to a new scheme that, for most members, would offer higher compensation than the PPF would.
Tata Steel UK would continue trading under such a plan, but would have to pay a large sum in return for ending its liabilities for the scheme.
“If the trustee is satisfied that Tata Steel UK insolvency is otherwise inevitable (as currently seems likely), the trustee believes that separation in the way outlined above would secure the best outcome for BSPS members,” it said. ($1 = 0.7942 pounds) (Reporting by Maytaal Angel; Editing by Alexander Smith and Adrian Croft)