LDS Church kept the lid on its $100B fund for fear tithing receipts would fall, account boss tells Wall Street Journal

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Latter-day Saint officials kept the size of the church’s $100 billion investment reserves secret for fear that public knowledge of the fund’s wealth might discourage members from paying tithing, according to the top executive who oversees the account.

For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tithing — donating 10% of one’s income to the faith — “is more of a sense of commitment than it is the church needing the money,” Roger Clarke, head of Ensign Peak Advisors, which manages the denomination’s investing holdings, told The Wall Street Journal.

“So they never wanted to be in a position where people felt like, you know, they shouldn’t make a contribution,” Clarke said.

The Journal’s exploration of church financial holdings included interviews with Clarke and top Latter-day Saint officials, including Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, the ecclesiastical leader who oversees the Utah-based faith’s vast financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations.

Neither Clarke nor other officials would provide The Journal with details on the size of the church’s annual budget or how much money goes to Ensign Peak. But, the paper reported, they “gave estimates for its main areas of expenditure that, collectively, total about $5 billion.”

In recent years, the church’s reserve fund has grown by about 7% annually, Clarke told The Journal, mainly from returns on existing investments, not member donations.

The fund’s handlers are instructed not to invest in industries that Latter-day Saints consider objectionable — including “alcohol, caffeinated beverages, tobacco and gambling,” he said, alluding in part to the church’s health code known as the Word of Wisdom, which bars those substances (although caffeinated sodas are not part of that prohibition).

Some of the stocks in which Ensign has invested millions include Apple Inc., Chevron Corp., Visa Inc., JPMorgan Chase, Home Depot, Amazon and Google, according to the article.

Clarke and former Ensign employees said the firm created a system of more than a dozen shell companies to make its stock investments harder to track. That strategy, Clarke said, was designed to prevent members from parroting what Ensign was doing and to, as the paper stated, “protect them from mismanaging their own funds with insufficient information.”

Church officials described the fund as a “rainy-day account” and to help fund operations in poorer parts of the world — such as Africa, where the faith is booming — where member donations can’t keep up.

The church can’t predict “when the next 2008 is going to take place,” Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the faith’s Presiding Bishopric, told The Journal. “If something like that [an economic recession] were to happen again, we won’t have to stop missionary work.”

When the Great Recession hit, however, officials said the church trimmed the budget rather than tap its reserves.

Here are some other takeaways from The Journal story:

• Ensign Peak’s holdings include “$40 billion of U.S. stock, timberland in the Florida Panhandle and investments in prominent hedge funds.”

• Latter-day Saint officials acknowledged that it used Ensign funds to underwrite construction of City Creek Center mall in downtown Salt Lake City and rescue Beneficial Life, a church-owned insurance company, but said there was nothing illegal in that.

• Former employees said the fund mushroomed from about $40 billion in 2012 to around $100 billion by 2019.

• Church officials said the global faith, as a whole, gives about $1 billion a year to “humanitarian causes and charities.”

Debates about Mormon finances and the question of transparency have persisted for decades but were triggered again in December by a “whistleblower” complaint filed by David Nielsen, a former portfolio manager with Ensign Peak, and reported by The Washington Post.

In a complaint filed with the IRS, Nielsen accused Ensign of taking in billions from members’ tithes and other donations and not spending any of it over a 22-year period for charitable purposes. He urged the agency to strip the denomination of its tax-exempt status, saying Ensign may owe billions in taxes.

The church’s governing First Presidency — made up of church President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring — rejected any allegation of fraudulent behavior, insisting in a news release that the faith “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves.”

Church leaders may be right to worry that the financial revelations could have a negative impact on tithe paying.

Carolyn Homer, a Latter-day Saint who lives in Virginia, told The Journal that after she heard about the money held by Ensign Peak, she resolved to tithe less and give more to other charities.

After The Post piece, Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Utah State University, told The Salt Lake Tribune that stories like this “will undoubtedly trouble many church members and lead them to wonder whether their charitable giving is best directed toward an institution that reportedly has a stockpile twice as large as Harvard’s endowment.”

Others may not be as concerned.

A recent Tribune/Suffolk University poll revealed that while a majority of Utahns, from across the religious spectrum, support the idea of requiring tax-exempt religious organizations to publicly report their finances, barely a third of “very active” Latter-day Saints do.

That suggests “a remarkable level of trust in church leadership,” Sam Brunson, a professor of tax law at Loyola University in Chicago, told The Tribune, “not just on spiritual/religious matters but also on more mundane secular matters.”

Clarke also told The Journal he was “misunderstood” by Nielsen, who asserted that Clarke had said the church had mustered the money for Christ’s Second Coming. Latter-day Saints, like many Christians, believe there will be a period of war, hardship and natural disasters before Jesus comes back.

“We believe at some point the Savior will return. Nobody knows when,” Clarke told the newspaper. When it does happen, “we don’t have any idea whether financial assets will have any value at all. The issue is what happens before that.”

Julia Miner, a retired tax attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area, is proud of her conservative Mormon tradition of frugality. But there is a time, she told The Tribune on Saturday, to use resources to help and lift people.

“Isn’t amassing wealth and then saving it the equivalent of ‘burying talents,’ that Christ condemned in the biblical parable?” Miner asked. “At some point, saving needs to be converted into good works and charitable giving.”