LDS Church wins big on stocks, racks up 907% gain on GameStop

Ensign Peak Advisors, also betting on tech and Tesla, sees its overall fund swell by $2.4 billion since early 2021.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune photo illustration) New disclosures show The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ largest investment fund, Ensign Peak Advisors, gained $2.4 billion in the first quarter of 2021 and is now valued at $46.5 billion.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ play for stock in GameStop paid off big-time as the Utah-based faith saw its shares in the video game retailer swell in value from $867,000 to $8.7 million in a matter of months.

Overall, the church’s largest investment fund, managed by Ensign Peak Advisors in Salt Lake City, grew by $2.4 billion in early 2021, continuing a dramatic rebound from pandemic-induced losses last spring and catapulting its total value to $46.5 billion.

New regulatory filings show the once-secretive portfolio saw a 5.5% gain since the end of 2020. These stock and mutual fund holdings appear to represent a sizable chunk of the total value of Ensign Peak, which was reported by a whistleblower at the end of 2019 to be worth at least $100 billion.

Ensign Peak’s multibillion-dollar holdings in big tech firms such as Apple, Amazon and Google helped power recent advances, the filings show, as did major increases from its holdings in more than a handful of so-called meme stocks including GameStop, Blackberry and Tesla.

Such equities have seen meteoric rises and declines of late, according to The Balance financial website, driven more by hype on social media and online forums than by a company’s performance.

With GameStop alone, some 46,000 shares Ensign Peak bought late last year shot up tenfold in value as retail investors online boosted the stock — in the process inflicting massive losses on several U.S. hedge funds that had bet against it.

Ensign Peak Advisors’ portfolio has gained $16.6 billion since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

After plunging 21% as the pandemic hammered stocks in the first quarter of 2020, the fund has jumped 55% in value, slightly behind gains over the same period for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which rose 57%.

Its most recent disclosures in mid-April show Ensign Peak now spreads its holdings among 1,825 stocks, up from 1,659 this time last year. The fund also has kept up a reallocation from industrial, financial and energy stocks to a portfolio heavier with technology and health care firms.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Its largest holdings remain among the world’s five dominant technology firms, with two surpassing the $2 billion mark for the first time: Apple, at $2.09 billion in shares, and Microsoft, $2.07 billion.

Next up are immense stakes in Google and its parent, Alphabet, together worth $1.5 billion; Amazon, $1.4 billion; and Facebook, $883 million.

Close behind those are blue chip stocks the fund held at least since late 2019 — pushing its top 10 holdings to $10.6 billion, or about 22% of its total worth. They include JPMorgan Chase, at $752 million; Intel Corp, $670 million; Visa, $612 million; UnitedHealth Group, $529 million; and COVID-19 vaccine maker Johnson & Johnson, $524 million.

Since early 2020, the fund has bumped Ensign Peak’s stake in Tesla from 15,017 to 648,387 shares, which now have a dollar value of $433 million, filings show. The maker of electric vehicles is now the fund’s 15th largest holding.

Ensign Peak has also built stakes since late 2019 in other companies labeled as meme stocks, including Bed Bath & Beyond, Advanced Micro Devices and Blackberry.

The SEC requires “institutional investment managers” with assets above $100 million to file quarterly reports. Ensign Peak Advisors did not submit such filings until February 2020, after David Nielsen, who used to work for Ensign Peak, and his twin brother, Lars Nielsen, filed a “whistleblower” complaint with the IRS accusing the church of amassing a $100 billion reserve fund from excess tithing intended for — but never spent on — charity in potential violation of tax laws.

To date, the IRS has offered no signs it is acting on the complaint.

Church leaders have described the Ensign Peak Advisors investment reserves as a “rainy day account” to help the global religion of 16.5 million members weather economic downturns and fund its operations around the world.