For more than half a century, the Mormon Church quietly built one of the world’s largest investment funds. Almost no one outside the church knew about it.
Some of that mystery evaporated late last year when a former employee revealed in a whistleblower complaint with the Internal Revenue Service that the fund, called Ensign Peak Advisors, had stockpiled $100 billion. The whistleblower also alleged that the church had improperly used some Ensign Peak funds. Officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially known as the Mormon Church, denied those claims.
They also declined to comment on how much money their investment fund controls. “We’ve tried to be somewhat anonymous,” Roger Clarke, the head of Ensign Peak, said from the firm’s fourth-floor office, above a Salt Lake City food court. Ensign Peak doesn’t appear in that building’s directory.
Interviews with more than a dozen former employees and business partners provide a deeper look inside an organization that ballooned from a shoestring operation in the 1990s into a behemoth rivaling Wall Street’s largest firms.
Its assets did total roughly $80 billion to $100 billion as of last year, some of the former employees said. That is at least double the size of Harvard University’s endowment and as large as the size of SoftBank’s Vision Fund, the world’s largest tech-investment fund. Its holdings include $40 billion of U.S. stock, timberland in the Florida panhandle and investments in prominent hedge funds such as Bridgewater Associates LP, according to some current and former fund employees.
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Church officials acknowledged the size of the fund is a tightly held secret, which they said was because Ensign Peak depends on donations—known as tithing—from the church’s 16 million world-wide members. The church is under no legal obligation to publicly report its finances.
But the whistleblower report—filed by David Nielsen, a former Ensign Peak portfolio manager—has heaped pressure on the church to be more transparent about its finances, something the church has avoided for decades.
The firm doesn’t tell business partners how much money it manages, an unusual practice on Wall Street. Ensign Peak employees sign lifetime confidentiality agreements. Most current employees are no longer told the firm’s total assets under management, according to some of the former employees; few employees understand what the money is intended for.
In their first-ever interview about Ensign Peak’s operations, Mr. Clarke and church officials who oversee the firm said it was a rainy-day account to be used in difficult economic times. As the church continues to grow in poorer areas of the world like Africa, where members cannot donate as much, it will need Ensign Peak’s holdings to help fund basic operations, they said.
“We don’t know when the next 2008 is going to take place,” said Christopher Waddell, a member of the ecclesiastical arm that oversees Ensign Peak known as the presiding bishopric. Referring to the economic crash 12 years ago, he added, “If something like that were to happen again, we won’t have to stop missionary work.”
During the last financial crisis, they didn’t touch the reserves Ensign Peak had amassed, church officials said. Instead, the church cut the budget.
A former employee and the whistleblower in his report said they heard Mr. Clarke refer to the second coming of Jesus Christ as part of the reason for Ensign Peak’s existence. Mormons believe before Jesus returns, there will be a period of war and hardship.
Mr. Clarke said the employees must have misunderstood his meaning. “We believe at some point the savior will return. Nobody knows when,” he said.
When the second coming happens, “we don’t have any idea whether financial assets will have any value at all,” he added. “The issue is what happens before that, not at the second coming.”
Whereas university endowments generally subsidize operating costs with investment income, Ensign Peak does the opposite. Annual donations from the church’s members more than covers the church’s budget. The surplus goes to Ensign Peak. Members of the religion must give 10% of their income each year to remain in good standing.
Dean Davies, another member of the ecclesiastical arm that oversees Ensign Peak, said the church doesn’t publicly share its assets because “these funds are sacred” and “we don’t flaunt them for public review and critique.”
Mr. Clarke said he believed church leaders were concerned that public knowledge of the fund’s wealth might discourage tithing.
“Paying tithing is more of a sense of commitment than it is the church needing the money,” Mr. Clarke said. “So they never wanted to be in a position where people felt like, you know, they shouldn’t make a contribution.”Among the EliteThe Mormon Church’s investment fund,Ensign Peak Advisors, has total assetscomparable to some of the world’s largestinvestors.Sources: Fund documents and people withknowledge of the fund sizesNote: China Investment and Utah Retirement data as2018. Ensign Peak and Catholic Church are estimates.$859 billion1261001005046.840.931.2China Investment CorporationRussia’s National Wealth FundEnsign PeakSoftBank Vision FundCatholic churchBill and Melinda Gates FoundationHarvard University EndowmentUtah Retirement Systems
Some members are now asking why details about the fund have been tightly held for so long, what the money is for, and whether tithing so much to the church should still be the standard practice.
Carolyn Homer, a church member who lives in Virginia, resolved to tithe less and give more to other charities after she heard about the money managed by Ensign Peak. A theme of the Book of Mormon, she said, is that God condemns churches that care more about wealth than feeding the poor. “When I hear members of the church say, ‘It’s none of your business how wealthy we are,’ that to me is echoing the very scripture we revere, and not in a good way.”
The church officials and Mr. Clarke declined to disclose the size of the church’s annual budget or to say how much money goes to Ensign Peak but gave estimates for its main areas of expenditure that, collectively, total about $5 billion.
A majority of the money held by Ensign Peak is from returns on existing investments and not member donations, according to Mr. Clarke. In recent years, the fund has gained about 7% annually, he said.
The former employees offered more details of Ensign Peak’s operations. During the bull market of the last decade, some of them said, the fund grew from about $40 billion in 2012 to $60 billion in 2014 to around $100 billion by 2019. About 70% of the money is liquid, one of the former employees said. As its assets swelled, Ensign Peak grew more secretive, said some of the former employees.
The firm doesn’t borrow money—the church warns members against going into debt. It also doesn’t invest in industries that Mormons consider objectionable—including alcohol, caffeinated beverages, tobacco and gambling. Mr. Clarke said the fund has pulled some of its money from an investment firm called Fisher Investments after the founder, Ken Fisher, made remarks last year that Mr. Fisher later called “inappropriate.” A spokesman for Fisher declined to comment.
The church established the investment division, which would later become Ensign Peak, in the 1960s, during a period of economic hardship for the faith. In 1969, construction on the church’s office building was halted when the money for construction ran out.
Ensign Peak invests all over the world in all types of assets. Here’s a selection of some significant investments:
- Bridgewater Associates–hedge fund
- Fisher Investments–Investment manager
- Apple Inc.
- Chevron Corp.
- Visa Inc.
- JP Morgan Chase
- Home Depot
SOURCE: Securities filings and Wall Street Journal reporting
Church leaders had long told members to put away provisions for hard times. Nathan Eldon Tanner, a counselor of the first presidency, the highest level of church leadership, said the church itself should do the same.
At first, the investment division had just three employees, and one of the church’s top three leaders had to approve every trade. By the late 1970s, the division managed about $1 billion, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.
The investment division reported monthly to an oversight body called the investment committee, which included ecclesiastical leaders. They would compare the division’s performance against market benchmarks.
“If we were not doing as well, they’d ask, ‘How come?’” one former employee said.
In 1997, the investment division was spun off into Ensign Peak Advisors, a separate legal entity named after a hill that overlooks downtown Salt Lake. The peak has its own significance: in 1847, Brigham Young and other Mormon pioneers scaled it to survey the valley as a potential settling place.
Mr. Clarke was tapped to lead the firm and charged with “bringing the investment department into the 20th Century,” a former employee said.
Previously, Mr. Clarke had worked as a professor at Brigham Young University, which is owned by the church. He was running an investment firm in Los Angeles when the presiding bishopric called him.
“It certainly wasn’t the most attractive financial office,” Mr. Clarke said. “But you want to make a difference in your life…This was an opportunity.”
The firm has steadily grown under Mr. Clarke’s tenure. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, “We got whacked, like everybody else,” Mr. Clarke said. Ensign Peak went into a hiring freeze, but soon resumed adding staff.
It now employs about 70 people. About one in seven are women, Mr. Clarke said.
In most respects, Ensign Peak’s offices look much like those of any other investment firm. CNBC plays on the television by the entrance and newspapers are strewn across a lobby table.
But the walls hint at Ensign Peak’s religious nature. Paintings depict scenes from the Bible and Mormon history, including several that depict pioneers who trekked in the 1800s to what is now Utah.
Employees need a temple recommend—an honor, which allows them to enter the faith’s holiest spaces, that is not afforded to all members —to work at Ensign Peak. They earn far less than they would on Wall Street. One former employee said they make less than $150,000 a year, a fraction of the fortunes possible in finance.
“It was not glamorous or religious 99.9% of the time,” one of the former employees said. For most, working at the firm was “a religious calling,” he said.
Executives used to share information about the assets under management with employees. That changed in recent years; now few employees are explicitly told the number, according to Mr. Clarke and some of the former employees.
The firm also created a system of more than a dozen shell companies to make its stock investments harder to track, according to the former employees and Mr. Clarke. This was designed to prevent members of the church from mimicking what Ensign Peak was doing to protect them from mismanaging their own funds with insufficient information, according to Mr. Clarke.
Neuburgh Advisers LLC, one of the shell companies, held hundreds of stocks, including Apple Inc. shares valued at more than $175 million and Amazon.com Inc. shares worth more than $70 million, according to a recent regulatory filing.
From time to time, church leaders in the ecclesiastical arm that oversees Ensign Peak arranged lunch meetings with Ensign Peak employees. During Q&A sessions at the end, employees sometimes asked what the money might be used for, according to one of the former employees, who attended.
Church leaders responded by saying they wanted to know that, too, according to this person.
“It was so amorphous,” the former employee said. “It was always, ‘When we have direction from the prophet.’ Everyone was waiting, as it were, for direction from God.” The prophet is the president of the church.
The Quiet Giant
Ensign Peak’s scale went relatively unknown on Wall Street. The firm doesn’t tell business partners how much money it manages, an unusual level of secrecy in the financial world.
One outside expert said the financial industry didn’t suspect it might be approaching $100 billion. “People thought it was between $30 and $40 billion,” said Michael Maduell, president of the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, which tracks large pools of money.
Employees in the fund rarely shared with outsiders much of what they did, even to friends in the same line of work. A person who worked at a money management firm said when that firm sought an investment from Ensign Peak, officials at the Mormon fund declined to share how much money they managed. Ensign Peak told this person that a small investment for the fund would be about $30 million and a large investment about $350 million.
The fund invests conservatively, Mr. Clarke said, in part because it has “a longer term horizon” than many other firms. In recent years, Mr. Clarke developed a quantitative stock trading program, incorporating one of the hottest recent trends in finance.
On his office bookshelf, Mr. Clarke keeps a copy of “Principles” by Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates. He said Bridgewater deputies have visited in the past, and that Mr. Dalio’s firm “helped us think about what’s happening kind of in the broader economy.” Bridgewater declined to comment.
Mr. Clarke also keeps an ancient Roman coin in his office, a reference to the biblical story of the widow’s mite, in which a poor widow donates to the temple treasury.
“It’s just a reminder of the purpose of the funds,” he said. “Many of the funds come from people who don’t make a lot of money.”
A Debate That Started in Salt Lake
Among rank-and-file members of the church, the whistleblower report unleashed an intense debate about tithing and how the church uses its vast resources.
On a recent snowy Sunday at a Salt Lake City meetinghouse, members said they trusted church leaders with their own money, and would continue to donate 10% of their income. “They use it well,” said Lasi Kioa, a 61-year-old immigrant from Tonga and a lifelong church member. “They help other people. They build the church. I believe in that.”
But Sam Brunson, a church member and tax law professor at Loyola University, said he wished church officials would use the $100 billion to help those in need today.
“They could go a good way to eradicating malaria, or fix Puerto Rico’s electrical grid,” he said. Alternatively, he said, the church could change what it considers tithing, allowing members to give 10% of their income to charity, rather than to the church itself.
Mr. Waddell, the member of the ecclesiastical arm that oversees Ensign Peak, said that with more than 16 million members there would always be some difference of opinion, but the vast majority of members have “expressed appreciation for the success we have had in managing the finances.”
Mr. Nielsen’s report, which was first reported by the Washington Post, stoked this debate. The report alleged the fund made no charitable contributions despite being incorporated as a tax-exempt charity. Fund and church officials said they haven’t violated any tax laws, and that the church organization as a whole, of which Ensign Peak is a part, puts nearly $1 billion a year toward humanitarian causes and charities. The IRS, which hasn’t accused the church of any wrongdoing, said it doesn’t comment on specific whistleblower claims. Mr. Nielsen didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Tax specialists familiar with the IRS’s whistleblower program said they didn’t expect the claim against Ensign Peak to be successful. The program receives many more claims than it acts on, and it has historically been reluctant to pursue tax issues involving churches, which have special status under the tax code. If the whistleblower’s claim is successful, that person could receive up to 30% of the proceeds collected by the IRS.
The whistleblower also accused Ensign Peak of illegally using tax-exempt donations to bail out two business ventures during the financial crisis—a life insurance company the church owned and construction of the City Creek Center, a Salt Lake City mall across the street from the church’s offices. Church officials confirmed to the Journal they had made these payments but denied they were illegal.
Gerald Causse, the presiding bishop, said the payouts during the financial crisis weren’t charitable disbursements at all, but investments. “It’s not an expenditure,” he said. “Tomorrow we can sell it and it will come back with a return.”
In the interview with the Journal, church officials maintained the payouts were not made with tithing funds, because, they said, most of the money in Ensign Peak doesn’t come directly from tithing but from returns on investment.
Tax lawyers have publicly debated whether Ensign Peak violated any laws as alleged by the whistleblower. Mr. Brunson, the tax law professor, doesn’t think so. But as a church member, he said he finds the lack of transparency frustrating, even if it is legal.
“I’m a stakeholder in the church, and society has some stake in the church too,” he said. “Even though I’m willing to tithe blindly, I would like to see what’s happening with that money.”
Directed by Darius Clark Monroe and executive produced by Spike Lee, this documentary short tells the story of what happened when a group of college athletes decided to protest a long-standing racial injustice.
Lloyd Eaton was the Wyoming coach
On Wednesday, we learned that during a 2017 background check for the former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, his two ex-wives both told the F.B.I. that he had abused them
- His first wife, Colbie Holderness, gave the F.B.I. a photo of her with a black eye, a result, she said, of Porter punching her in the face during a vacation in 2005.
- Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, shared a 2010 emergency protective order she’d received after he punched in the glass on her door while they were separated.
.. The White House chief of staff John Kelly reportedly knew about these allegations, which are said to be the reason the F.B.I. never gave Porter a full security clearance,
.. Porter’s past was apparently not considered a problem inside the White House until it became public. This tells us quite a bit about how seriously this administration takes violence against women.
.. Kelly reportedly urged Porter not to resign
.. President Trump’s press secretary Sarah Sanders read a statement from Porter calling his ex-wives’ accounts “simply false” and part of a “coordinated smear campaign.”
.. In what was perhaps a rare outbreak of candor by omission, she didn’t bother with a pro forma statement that the White House condemns domestic violence.
.. “I was exposed to a far wider array of classified and sensitive information in the White House job than as the top lawyer at the National Security Agency,”
.. It’s hard to see why Kelly, who was supposed to be the disciplined adult in this administration, would cover for Porter. Unless, that is, he genuinely couldn’t grasp that domestic violence is a big deal.
.. the abuse charges were the origin of Trump’s derisive nickname for Bannon: “Bam Bam.”
.. Andy Puzder, the former head of Carl’s Jr. and Trump’s first nominee for labor secretary.
.. Trump himself was accused of domestic assault by his first wife, Ivana Trump
.. Hurt wrote that Donald Trump became enraged after scalp reduction surgery left him in pain, and blamed his then-wife, who had recommended the doctor.
.. Hurt describes Trump pinning back Ivana’s arms and ripping out her hair by the handful “as if he is trying to make her feel the same kind of pain that he is feeling.” Then, she told friends, Trump raped her.
.. Willoughby described confiding in a Mormon official about her husband’s fits of rage. She was told to think about how Porter’s career might suffer if she spoke out. Powerful people in Washington seem to have been similarly worried, first and foremost, about protecting the ambitious and pedigreed young man.
.. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, and in The Daily Mail, the senator categorically dismissed the accusations and, whether he meant to or not, the women making them.
.. “Shame on any publication that would print this — and shame on the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name,” he said.
.. Later, after the black-eye photograph of Holderness was published, Hatch issued a statement saying that domestic violence is “abhorrent.” But after that, he gave an interview in which he said he hoped Porter would “keep a stiff upper lip” and not resign. “If I could find more people like him, I would hire them,” said Hatch
.. It’s not really a surprise that Hatch, who once said that Trump’s presidency could become the greatest ever, would treat serious allegations of abusing women as a personal foible unrelated to one’s professional capabilities. You basically have to see things that way to support Trump in the first place.
Many states still followed the common law Doctrine of Coverture, which declared a woman civilly dead once she married. It’s not just…
GROSS: So she had no legal rights over her money, her property. She had no ownership over them.
ULRICH: Her money, her – her money, her property – she couldn’t sue or take a case to court except under a father or a husband – so dependency. The right to divorce – although divorce laws were greatly liberalized in the 19th century in most parts of the country, it was definitely – you had to prove either adultery – it took a while for physical abuse to be grounds for divorce.
.. Utah had no fault divorce from the beginning. It was very, very open and pretty common. And particularly, I think that made plural marriage workable. If you didn’t like it, you could leave.
.. It’s a very different world than we imagine. And so instead of comparing plural marriage in the 19th century to our notions of women’s rights today, we need to compare plural marriage, monogamy and then other institutions that really distressed people in the 19th century, like prostitution for example, different kinds of bigamous relationships.
So Mormons would argue, many American men have multiple sexual partners. They’re just not responsible. They don’t acknowledge them. They don’t give them dignity. They don’t legitimate their children. So polygamy is a solution to the horrendous licentiousness of other Americans.
.. So one of the things you’re famous for is a phrase that you originated in – I think it was like an academic paper in the 1970s – and the phrase has since shown up on like T-shirts and bumper stickers. I know you’re asked about this all the time, but the phrase is well-behaved women seldom make history.
Now, knowing your work, knowing that you write about, quote, “ordinary women” who kept journals, and you’re trying to understand what the lives of, like, ordinary women were in their time, I interpret that quote as meaning if you’re just looking at history, you won’t understand the lives of ordinary women because ordinary women seldom make history. But I suspect that that has been – that quote has been interpreted as ordinary women seldom make history so women don’t be ordinary, do something special so you can make history. Don’t be ordinary.
.. Yes. It’s been turned upside-down. On the other hand, you know, I was an ordinary girl from Idaho who got involved in the feminist movement and I’ve been on a collective bargaining team, and my former university, you know – I’ve done a lot of not very well-behaved things. And so I guess I embrace both sides. I embrace the contradiction of that crazy accidental slogan.
A large share of well-educated liberal America is post-Protestant — former Methodists, ex-Lutherans, lapsed Presbyterians, the secularized kids of Congregationalists.
.. with the oldest churchgoing population and one of the lowest retention rates of any Christian tradition in the United States.
.. what those congregations offer is already embodied in liberal politics and culture.
.. enjoy a sort of cultural triumph, losing members even as their most distinctive commitments — ecumenical spirituality and a progressive social Gospel — permeate academia, the media, pop culture, the Democratic Party.
.. liberal Protestantism without the Protestantism tends to gradually shed the liberalism as well, transforming into an illiberal cult of victimologies that burns heretics with vigor.
.. as liberalism de-churches it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good.
.. religious impulses without institutions aren’t enough to bind communities and families, to hold atomization and despair at bay.
.. Mormonism, the most demandingly communitarian of contemporary faiths
.. If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism
.. you associate “religion” with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex
.. aren’t you being a little ungrateful, a little slothful, a little selfish by leaving these churches empty when they’re trying to be exactly the change you say you wish Christianity would make?
.. Sure, consciousness and free will are illusions, but human rights and gender identities are totally real.
His paranoid style paved the road for Trumpism. Now he fears what’s been unleashed.
.. Many Americans revere the Constitution. Mormons, however, consider it sacred. In Doctrine and Covenants, a book of Mormon scripture, God says, “I have established the Constitution of this land by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.” According to polling by David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, 94 percent of American Mormons believe that the “Constitution and the Bill of Rights are divinely inspired.” That’s only two points lower than the percentage who believe that the Book of Mormon is.
.. But Mormons don’t just consider the Constitution sacred. They believe that its violation has allowed their persecution. Why did the governor of Missouri in 1838 call for Mormons to “be exterminated or driven from the State”? Why were Mormons forced to travel halfway across the continent—leaving the borders of what was then the United States—in order to find sanctuary in Utah? Because America’s leaders disregarded the country’s sacred texts.
.. Today, many Mormons see defending the Constitution the way many Jews see opposing genocide: as a way of honoring their ancestors and affirming their identity.
.. According to legend, the Mormon leader Joseph Smith prophesied in 1843 that the Constitution would one day “hang by a thread” and be saved by “the elders of Zion,” by which he meant Mormon men.
.. Mormon culture, he told me, emphasizes a “moderate way of speaking.”
.. Campbell, who is Mormon himself, says that’s in part because many Mormons are desperate to be accepted by a mainstream that has long rejected them. They’re fearful of looking like fanatics or nuts.
.. The same doomsday sensibility that helps him appreciate the menace posed by Trump led him to massively exaggerate the menace posed by Obama—and thus to breed the hateful paranoia on which Trump now feeds. Beck, in fact, pioneered some of Trump’s most disturbing themes. At the beginning of Obama’s first term, Beck repeatedly called the president antiwhite.
.. Trump opponents may appreciate Beck’s Hitler analogies now that they’re directed at The Donald. But during the first 14 months of the Obama administration, according to Dana Milbank’s book Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America, Beck and guests on his Fox News show invoked “fascism,” “Nazis,” “Hitler,” “the Holocaust” and “Joseph Goebbels” 487 times.
.. Beck says he’s sorry for all that. “I played a role, unfortunately,” he told Megyn Kelly during a 2014 interview on Fox News, “in helping tear the country apart.”
.. But for years and years, he called sheep wolves. Now that the wolf is here, it may be too late.