A mission to blanket the globe with temples is what motivates The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to maintain an investment portfolio worth $100 billion or more.
That’s the conclusion of an article published Thursday by The Wall Street Journal.
“We have a vision of the church that is — can I use the word grandiose?” Gérald Caussé, the church’s presiding bishop and ecclesiastical overseer of the Utah-based faith’s vast financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations, told The Journal. “Because we believe the gospel has to be taken to all the world. And so we see the size of the church [with 17 million members] multiple times what it is now, in the future.”
Given the church’s deep reserves, Caussé said President Russell M. Nelson can announce temples anywhere he believes is essential — without worrying about costs — “because he knows that there are reserves to maintain these temples for a long time, whatever happens in the world.”
Indeed, Nelson has announced 133 new temples since the 98-year-old retired heart surgeon became president five-plus years ago. That’s 42% of the faith’s 315 existing or planned temples. And The Journal says Latter-day Saint leaders expect to build hundreds more.
A recent example of temple expenditures? The newspaper pointed to Idaho’s Pocatello Temple, which cost an estimated $69 million to build. The single-spired, three-story, 71,125-square-foot edifice features “polished limestone flooring … quarried in Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus,” it reported, “and wood for its doors was imported from the Congo River region.”
The church hopes to expedite the process a bit with a new modular approach to temple building, the first of which was the single-spired, nearly 10,000-square-foot structure dedicated earlier this month in Helena, Mont.
When the $100B fund came to light
The Journal article comes in the wake of whistleblower allegations leveled by David A. Nielsen, a former portfolio manager for Ensign Peak Advisors, the faith’s investment firm.
Nielsen filed a complaint in late 2019 with the IRS accusing the church of amassing a $100 billion reserve fund intended for, but never spent on, charity in potential violation of tax laws.
The tax agency has never taken any public action on the complaint.
Earlier this year, Nielsen took his case to Congress, urging the Senate Finance Committee to investigate the faith’s financial practices and sharing what he said is “evidence of false statements, systematic accounting fraud” and violations of tax laws and other federal statutes.
He has asserted, among other things, that his former employer has dodged more than $20 billion in taxes as well as another $2 billion in fines.
Weeks after he turned to the Senate, the church and Ensign Peak Advisors settled with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, agreeing to pay $5 million in penalties for failing to properly disclose past stock holdings and going to “great lengths,” regulators said, to deliberately “obscure” the breadth and depth of the church’s investment portfolio.
“We recognize mistakes, and we regret mistakes,” Caussé told The Journal, reiterating that the church’s money funds its religious, charitable and educational efforts. “There is no other purpose. Nobody is getting rich.”
In March, for instance, the church reported spending more than $1 billion last year on humanitarian aid, eclipsing its 2021 total by more than $100 million amid the increased scrutiny of the faith’s finances.
‘It wasn’t an accurate answer’
Ensign Peak now heeds SEC rules and discloses its U.S. stock holdings, which were valued at $46.2 billion in its latest report. These public filings do not, however, reflect the portfolio’s total holdings.
The church has “misstated” its assets on federal tax returns, The Journal noted. In 2007, for example, Ensign Peak recorded $1 million for its total assets and in later years wrote “over” $1 million. The real 2007 number, the article stated, was about $38 billion.
“It wasn’t an accurate answer. It wasn’t meant to be an accurate answer,” L. Todd Budge, second counselor in the three-member Presiding Bishopric and former banking and private-equity executive, told the paper. “It was simply meant to communicate that we do not feel that we’re obligated to fill in that box.”
For their part, church higher-ups have insisted Ensign Peak’s “rainy day” reserves are intended to help pay for operations in poorer parts of the world and to see the global faith through economic downturns.
Lack of financial transparency?
In a 2020 Journal article about the church and its money, Latter-day Saint officials said they kept the size of the investment reserves secret for fear that public knowledge of the fund’s wealth might discourage members from paying tithing.
This time around, Caussé and other church officials again declined to detail the church’s finances or the size of its assets.
“It’s important for us that we maintain our privacy,” Caussé said. “That’s a value that’s important for religion.”
Even so, outsiders and insiders, including devout Latter-day Saints, have called on the church to be more generous with its charitable spending and more open about its wealth.
“This issue would go away,” Sam Brunson, a popular Latter-day blogger and a tax law professor at Loyola University Chicago, has argued, “if the worldwide church were transparent about its finances, a thing entirely within its power.”