LDS Church on its way to becoming a trillion-dollar faith

The Widow’s Mite Report offers detailed analysis of the faith’s holdings well beyond the public stock filings from its investment arm.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Analysts at The Widow's Mite Report estimate that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose main Temple Square campus in Salt Lake City is undergoing massive renovations, as shown here in April, will be worth $500 billion in 11 to 15 years and $1 trillion within 21 to 27 years.

On its current path, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could be worth at least a trillion dollars by 2044, up from more than $200 billion today.

Those findings are part of The Widow’s Mite Report, an online examination of the faith’s finances that emerged quietly in 2021 as debate boiled about the Utah-based church’s wealth.

[Read more about Widow’s Mite, why it began and what it aims to accomplish.]

The website relies on public information from hundreds of sources, with detailed analysis built from hours upon hours of volunteer work by unnamed current and former church members with professional backgrounds in business, finance, investing, accounting, data science, education and other fields.

Found at widowsmitereport.wordpress.com, their clear and straightforward studies are offered as a neutral point of view, contributors say, in hopes of grounding discussions on the church’s money in knowable facts.

“We would like to see the church become more financially transparent,” says a joint statement from the site’s collaborators, “and believe the benefits to doing so would greatly outweigh the costs.”

The Widow's Mite Report, an online study of the finances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, forecasts the church could be worth $1 trillion within 25 years.

In lieu of additional church disclosure, they say, “we seek to assemble as much of that picture as is possible, based on information in the public domain.”

Four of the website’s core contributors agreed to be interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune on condition that they not be named. They say they insist on keeping their identities confidential not out of fear of church retaliation, but instead to avoid the site’s reports being viewed, and potentially dismissed, due to the details of any one contributor’s personal experience.

Church spokesperson Christopher Moore said he could not provide responses to questions submitted by The Tribune, because the “main themes” were coming from “anonymous accounts.”

Here are key findings from The Widow’s Mite Report:

Ensign Peak Advisors’ worth tops $150B

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building is seen behind a building in downtown Salt Lake City where Ensign Peak Advisors, the investment arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is located, photographed Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.

Founded in 1997, Ensign Peak Advisors is the church’s primary investment arm. Its holdings include a lot more than shares in stocks and mutual funds, according to Widow’s Mite models.

Yet its dollar value remained largely unknown until early 2020, soon after whistleblower and former Ensign employee David Nielsen alleged the church had a $100 billion reserve fund intended for, but never spent on, charity in potential violation of tax laws.

Ensign Peak now submits quarterly reports on a portion of its stocks, and those were worth an estimated $46.2 billion as of March in its latest filing.

(CBS News) David Nielsen, a former senior portfolio manager with Ensign Peak Advisors who turned whistleblower, talks to correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi in Sunday's edition of "60 Minutes."

Applying investment benchmarks, Widow’s Mite says the portfolio likely holds additional international shares and stocks that are externally managed, as well as bonds, hybrid investments and major stakes in private equity.

The site says it also extends to real estate held by church firms such as Property Reserve, Suburban Land Reserve and AgReserve. Among these properties are ranches, farms, offices, housing, hotels and industrial parks.

Based on that mix, the site pegs Ensign Peak’s value at between $150 billion and $175 billion in recent years. That’s up from about $50 billion in 2010.

Widow’s Mite also estimates the market value of many businesses owned and run by the church — property management, insurance, publishing, broadcasting, entertainment and more — but concludes their value is relatively minor compared to Ensign Peak’s immense assets.

Indications are that the Ensign Peak portfolio is professionally and conservatively managed with regard to risk and returns. A high portion of its holdings are in more liquid investments, meaning they could be converted to cash within 90 days.

A breakdown of how Ensign Peak Advisors, primary investment arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, allocates the nearly $236 billion it has invested.

Its blend of stocks closely tracks the S&P 500, according to Widow’s Mite, but with regular tweaks in which its money managers increase or decrease shares in specific stocks in hopes of beating the performance of that market index.

In a matter of decades, Widow’s Mite notes, that strategy has helped the Salt Lake City-headquartered faith amass more monetary assets (which include cash and investments minus any debt) than some of the world’s wealthiest institutions — more than Google, Apple or Microsoft, for example — and well above the value of many sovereign wealth funds held by nations.

One practice that helps the church pile up cash more rapidly than, say, mega-corporations is its aversion to debt. It doesn’t borrow to build chapels, temples or school buildings. The faith’s spending, the group’s analysts point out, “will always be less than expected income.”

So, without a significant change in how the church uses its investments — and assuming overall market returns similar to past years — Widow’s Mite forecasts the 17 million-member church will be worth $500 billion in 11 to 15 years and $1 trillion within 21 to 27 years.

SEC order and the church’s response

(Andrew Harnik | AP) The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission building in Washington is shown in 2017. The SEC fined Ensign Peak Advisors and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a total of $5 million for failing to properly disclose past stock holdings.

In February, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced $5 million in fines against the church and Ensign Peak for failing to properly disclose past stock holdings and seeking to “obscure” the breadth and depth of the investment portfolio.

The deception, according to the settlement, involved Ensign Peak creating a dozen shell companies with addresses across the country and reporting nearly $32.7 billion in stocks under their ownership, instead of its own. Under the SEC deal, the firm was ordered to pay $4 million and the church $1 million related to violations of securities disclosure laws over more than 20 years.

Church officials have said they “regret mistakes made” and consider the matter closed.

A careful reading of related documents, according to Widow’s Mite, turns up some anomalies.

In its own news release on the matter, the SEC referred to the specially created firms as “shell companies.” But the SEC order — in which each word was mutually agreed upon by the agency and church officials — uses the more innocuous term “clones.”

A church-published Q&A on the matter says it had “relied upon legal counsel” in the matter. But that, according to Widow’s Mite, doesn’t justify top church leaders’ approval of the deceptive practices and is offered only for public relations.

Had the church actually invoked that as a defense to federal regulators, the site says, it would have been investigated under SEC protocol and mentioned in the settlement. Yet no mention was made.

And the site notes that even though the SEC first raised concerns about Ensign Peak’s reporting in June 2019, the firm didn’t file a corrected report with the stocks consolidated under its own name until nine months after the probe started.

By one Widow’s Mite tally, Ensign Peak’s repeated omissions on multiple annual disclosures from 2003 to 2019 amounted to “over 650,000 instances of untrue, incorrect or incomplete information.”

And while the $5 million in civil penalties is small compared to the church’s $150 billion or more in investments, the site found that the total fines were 50 times larger than any prior ones levied for similar disclosure violations.

More on the ‘60 Minutes’ episode

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and shown in March, appeared on a "60 Minutes" segment about the faith's finances.

Widow’s Mite authors say they heard some telling details — and a little vindication — in Bishop W. Christopher Waddell’s interview during the May segment on church finances by the CBS newsmagazine show “60 Minutes.

When pressed by reporter Sharyn Alfonsi to disclose the current overall value of Ensign Peak, Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, the ecclesiastical overseers of the church’s financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations, said he couldn’t share that.

“I know there have been reports on approximates and that kind of thing,” the church leader responded, “and that’s as far as we can go right now.”

Contributors to Widow’s Mite took that as a compliment aimed their way:

“Thank you for acknowledgment of our research and analysis,” was their response. “We have worked diligently to go ‘as far as we can go’ with the available data and information.”

In response to Waddell’s assertions to “60 Minutes” that Ensign Peak’s size reflected its status as a kind of “rainy day fund” in case of economic downturns, the site observes that, as of 2022, the church had saved enough cash to cover all its annual operations for about 30 years without adding another cent.

If Ensign Peak were viewed as the church’s endowment fund, the site found, it is already large enough to support the church — independent of any member tithes or other donations.

As to Waddell’s explanation that the church’s spate of new temple construction will place future demands on those resources, the site’s authors say the church could build and maintain up to 1,000 temples (it has 315 existing or planned temples right now) by 2040 by allocating 10% to 12% of what it currently receives in yearly tithing donations.

Widow’s Mite also says Waddell’s statement that the church intends to “double [its] humanitarian work again, and then again” was consistent with its analysis of the church’s charity reports, which found a doubling of those expenditures in 2022. It estimates the faith gave about 10% of its surplus tithing to charity last year.

In March, the church reported spending more than $1 billion worldwide helping those in need last year.

Greatly expanding humanitarian outreach may require the faith to “set up a separate, global organization with secular governance,” Widow’s Mite states, especially since “investments may be growing faster than the church’s ability to give away a meaningful portion.”

The group makes clear it supports increased generosity. “Many miracles are possible,” its 2022 report says, “if surplus money were to be deployed in faith, instead of being concealed out of fear.”

Real estate is estimated at $102 billion

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students walk between classes on Brigham Young University's Provo campus in September 2022. Widow's Mite estimates the value of BYU campuses in Utah, Idaho and Hawaii, along with Ensign College in Salt Lake City and related holdings, at about $10 billion.

The church owns tens of thousands of properties around the world but doesn’t consistently disclose its ownership, Widow’s Mite says. Its real estate holdings can also be recorded under any one of hundreds of corporate names and variations.

But the website’s research identifies six major categories of landholdings by the church worldwide, amounting to a current estimated total value in property of about $102 billion.

Ecclesiastical buildings and sites — including chapels, temples, seminaries and religious institutes as well as landmarks such as Salt Lake City’s Temple Square — make up the biggest share, at about $59 billion.

Farms and ranches account for about $12 billion, with more than 2,800 properties, or 2.5 million acres — 85% of it located in North America.

The site values Brigham Young University campuses in Utah, Idaho and Hawaii, along with Ensign College in Salt Lake City and related holdings, at about $10 billion.

Known commercial real estate holdings, including the Church Office Building, residential properties, parking lots and industrial sites make up an estimated $6 billion in value, according to Widow’s Mite. The church’s nearly 400 mission homes and its flagship Missionary Training Center in Provo, meanwhile, are together worth about $2 billion. Unidentified church real estate of all types held under Ensign Peak and related investment funds are estimated to make up about $13 billion.

With operating properties and investments included, the site found, church real estate accounts for about 17% of Ensign Peak assets, lifting the faith’s current overall value to about $236 billion.

With that trillion-dollar milestone coming ever closer.

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