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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lost $1.59 billion on investments in the third quarter as U.S. markets dipped.
Newly filed federal reports put the tithing-seeded account — managed by the faith’s investment arm, Salt Lake City’s Ensign Peak Advisors — at $48 billion, down 3.2% from the previous quarter, when the fund edged closer to a two-year high of just below $50 billion.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.9% over the same three months, marked by reactions to protracted COVID-19 effects, supply disruptions and inflation.
The latest decline breaks a 15-month growth spurt on Ensign Peak’s behemoth portfolio of stocks and bonds managed for the Utah-based church. But the figures still show the account 60% ahead of early coronavirus pandemic lows, when the reserve fund dipped below $30 billion.
It marks only the third time since the once-secretive fund began reporting to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in early 2020 that its holdings have failed to outperform the Dow.
In December 2019, David Nielsen, a former fund manager at Ensign Peak, filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS accusing the church of amassing up to $100 billion in reserve funds from excess tithing intended for — but never spent on — charity, in potential violation of tax laws.
To date, the tax agency has not confirmed it is acting on the complaint.
Publicly and in court documents, church leaders have portrayed Ensign Peak as a “rainy day” account to help the global faith of 16.6 million members navigate economic downturns and fund its operations around the world.
Fund managers filed their first SEC report in February 2020, disclosing that as of the end of the fourth quarter of 2019, the account held $37.8 billion.
Ensign Peak now owns shares in 1,851 companies and funds, its latest SEC reports reveal, a number that has mushroomed from 1,622 holdings in early 2020 as the fund has added billions in value.
Large technology firms Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft make up $9 billion of Ensign Peak’s total portfolio, up from $5.2 billion at the start of 2020, with Microsoft its current top holding, at $2.3 billion.
The five tech giants also represent Ensign’s only billion-dollar-plus holdings, with banking blue chip JPMorgan Chase now the next highest, at $710 million, followed by computer maker NVIDIA Corp, at $629 million. Other top holdings are Visa ($580 million); UnitedHealth Group ($542 million); Intel ($527 million) and Thermo Fisher Scientific ($469 million).
While those five Big Tech holdings have almost doubled in dollar value since 2019, reports reveal, Ensign Peak has steadily adjusted shares to keep them at 17% to 19% of the portfolio’s total worth.
It’s unclear how directly involved church leaders are in Ensign Peak’s moves, although officials over the fund have said they avoid debt in keeping with the faith’s tenets and strive to steer clear of investments Latter-day Saints consider objectionable, such as tobacco or gambling stocks.
The church-owned fund made headlines in early 2021 after it scored big gains from so-called meme stocks such as GameStop, Blackberry, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Its shares in video game retailer GameStop alone jumped in value from $867,000 to $8.7 million in just a few months, for a 907% gain.
There are no signs of those social-media swayed stocks in Ensign Peak’s latest SEC report, but the fund did boost its holdings in Tesla in the third quarter, bringing its stake in the electric vehicle and clean-energy company to $462.7 million.
And after dumping shares in a fund focused on South Korean firms at the start of 2021, Ensign Peak has boosted its shares in similar funds centered on India and Saudi Arabia. Its Indian holdings rocketed from $12 million at the end of 2020 to $65 million in the latest report, while its Saudi shares soared from $3 million to $19 million.
Correction • Nov. 24, 5:45 p.m.: The graphic accompanying this story was corrected to accurately state the overall value of the Ensign Peak Advisors fund.