No alcohol, tobacco, coffee or Coke stocks — a look at how the LDS Church has grown its wealth

Valued at above $52 billion, Ensign Peak Advisors’ account is full of blue chip holdings and some interesting Utah companies.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The immense and once-secret investment portfolio of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now has eyes watching its every step.

The Utah-based faith’s Ensign Peak Advisors tally of stocks and other holdings topped $52.3 billion in value as of Dec. 31, boosting its earnings during the pandemic to $22.4 billion as quarterly reports showed it regularly outperforming market bellwethers such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Managers first disclosed the fund’s Wall Street holdings in March 2020, with a report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on nearly 1,659 stocks and mutual funds, many of them household names.

Since that initial glimpse of how the global church of 16.6 million members invests some of the excess tithing paid, those quarterly reports have mapped a remarkable rebound from $8 billion in losses early in 2020, when markets tanked due to COVID-19. The investments are now almost double in value compared to late 2019.

Market watchers are taking notice. Salt Lake City-based Ensign Peak is now ranked among some of the largest U.S. institutional investors and hedge funds, and it draws regular updates over its trades. In just two years, the portfolio has expanded to 2,199 different holdings, SEC disclosures reveal, for a mix heavy in blue chip stocks and consumer favorites along with billion-dollar stakes in technology titans such as Apple, Microsoft and Google.

Half of Ensign Peak’s $52.3 billion, as of the quarter ending Dec. 31, is now held in 44 stocks.

The increase represents a 9% gain from the prior quarter and compares to 7.8% gain on the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the same period.

Beyond shares in well-known stocks, as one might expect from investment managers for a fiscally conservative worldwide faith, analysis shows that Ensign Peak as a whole is widely diversified across industries, risk levels and company sizes, akin to the benchmark Standard & Poor’s market index.

It also has some interesting quirks.

Church puts big money into Big Tech

Ensign Peak’s shares in five technology stocks — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft — were valued at $5.5 billion at the end of 2019 but reached $10.3 billion in the past quarter, about a fifth of the entire portfolio.

Those gains have been driven partly by record performances of tech firms such as Amazon during the health crisis, but it’s also been partly by design.

Apple has been Ensign Peak’s largest holding since late 2019, when it represented $1.5 billion of the total portfolio. Managers quadrupled the fund’s stake in the California company in spring 2020, expanding from 4.9 million shares to 19.2 million shares. They have pared that position by about 3 million shares since.

The Apple stake was worth $2.9 billion at year’s end, slightly ahead of its second largest holding, Microsoft, valued at $2.8 billion.

Church investors skip soft drinks

The church has said Ensign Peak’s managers do not invest in industries that faithful Latter-day Saints consider objectionable, including alcohol, tobacco, coffee and gambling. Interestingly, though, of 30 large stocks that compose the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Ensign Peak has never invested in Coca-Cola.

While some member shun caffeinated beverages, consuming drinks like Coke, Pepsi or Dr Pepper actually violates no teaching within the faith, including its Word of Wisdom health code.

SEC documents show shares in the worldwide soft drink maker have not been part of its portfolio during the nine quarters it has reported to the agency, while every other Dow component — from Amgen, Boeing and Caterpillar to McDonald’s and Walmart — has drawn Ensign Peak investment interest at some point since late 2019.

Also off the fund’s list are Coke rivals, PepsiCo and Keurig Dr Pepper, a conglomerate that also owns a prominent coffee brand. Ensign also seems to avoid most so-called pure-play coffee suppliers, such as Starbucks, as well as tobacco makers.

Utah companies make the list

Of the five largest publicly traded Utah companies listed on the Fortune 500, Ensign Peak, as of Dec. 31, owned shares in four of them: bank holding company Zions Bancorp.; multilevel marketer Nu Skin Enterprises; online retailer Overstock; and airline SkyWest.

It also holds stakes in prominent companies based in the state such as software survey firm Qualtrics and some of Utah’s top health-related operations such as Health Catalyst, Health Equity, Merit Medical Systems and USANA Health Sciences.

Several notable Utah firms were off its list at year’s end, including financial tech company PROG Holdings; Midvale-based retailer Sportsman’s Warehouse; and home security provider Vivint Smart Home.

Disclosures show Ensign Peak held a $76.8 million stake in human-resources software firm Pluralsight at the end of 2019 but had slashed that to zero by spring 2020 and hasn’t held shares in the company since.

Fund managers reported a $91 million stake in Zions as 2019 closed but had trimmed that to $1.4 million as of late last year.

The account’s ownership in Qualtrics, meanwhile, has followed almost a counter-trajectory: Ensign Peak held no shares of the company — which also does surveying for the church — from late 2019 through 2020 but then bought a $9.8 million stake in early 2021 and has expanded that to $12.9 million by last quarter.

The fund steered clear of shares in online retailer Overstock.com from late 2019 until the end of 2021, when it bought a $535,000 stake.

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