LDS Church racks up a $3 billion gain as Big Tech holdings soar

Ensign Peak Advisors’ latest SEC report shows the faith’s investment account is now worth nearly $50 billion, up almost $20B from the onset of the pandemic.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Administration Building, on South Temple in Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. A church investment fund just reported a $3 billion gain in its overall value.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints extended its 15-month winning streak playing the U.S. stock market this spring as its key investment fund scored gain after gain, making an additional $3 billion in three months.

New federal reports show, in fact, that the account managed by the faith’s Salt Lake City-based Ensign Peak Advisors is now worth $49.6 billion after adding nearly $20 billion in value since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

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.

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In the second quarter of 2021, the once-secretive fund also shed some of its well-publicized holdings in so-called meme stocks, including GameStop, Blackberry and Bed, Bath & Beyond after enjoying a profitable rise in those shares through their social media-fed buildup in late 2020.

Fund managers also trimmed the church’s investment holdings in Tesla, from $433 million at the end of March to $381 million three months later.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

But Ensign Peak’s long-standing stake in big technology firms grew larger, with combined shares in Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and two flavors of Google now worth a total of $8.9 billion, just shy of $1 billion more than it was at the end of March.

New filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission show the fund swelled overall by 6.57% during April, May and June alone, and is now about a third larger than it was a year ago.

Ensign Peak filed its first public report on its stock portfolio with U.S. regulators in early 2020 — after the whistleblower revelations — reflecting a value of $37.8 billion and 1,659 separate holdings. The massive account then fell below $30 billion the next quarter, according to SEC filings, as financial markets worldwide tanked amid the coronavirus.

Like the wider markets, Ensign Peak has since posted gains every quarter, including a $6.9 billion bounce in the three months after the pandemic lows of March 2020. Its $3 billion advance in the second quarter of this year now puts it $19.7 billion ahead on its pandemic lows, with stakes in 1,822 stocks and mutual funds.

The investment fund generated a buzz in May, when it it reported its shares in video game retailer GameStop shot up in value, from $867,000 to $8.7 million in a matter of months, for a 907% gain. New filings show the fund sold those 46,000 shares in the second quarter.

In December 2019, David Nielsen, a former fund manager at Ensign Peak, 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 tax agency has offered no signs it is acting on the complaint.

Church leaders have described the Ensign Peak investment reserves as a “rainy day” account to help the global religion of 16.6 million members weather economic downturns and fund its operations around the world.

In a high-profile lawsuit brought by former Utahn James Huntsman, church leaders and their attorneys have acknowledged the faith used “earnings on invested reserve funds” — which SEC reports indicate can be substantial — on commercial ventures, including the construction of the City Creek Center shopping mall in downtown Salt Lake City.

Huntsman — a brother of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and a son of the late Utah industrialist-philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., who had served as an area Seventy in the church and died in 2018 — cites the whistleblower case in his federal fraud lawsuit.

The California businessman alleges church leaders “repeatedly and publicly lied” about billions of dollars in member donations, asserting money meant for missionary work, temple-building and charitable outreach was instead used on for-profit projects.

His suit seeks at least $5 million in refunded tithing, interest and penalties.

Editor’s noteJames Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.