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The Mormon Church’s Counterpart to a Sovereign Wealth Fund

Summary:
The State of Missouri declared war against the Mormon Church in 1838. The US Federal Government declared war against the Mormon Church in 1857. The US Federal Government legally disincorporated the Mormon Church in 1890, and began confiscating Mormon Church assets. Many top Mormon leaders today were born in the early 20th century; the current head of the Mormon Church was born in 1924, when many were still alive who had experienced those events first hand. As a result, it comes much more easily to leaders of the Mormon Church to view the Mormon Church as under threat than those who don’t feel this history so keenly would suspect.Money

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The Mormon Church's Counterpart to a Sovereign Wealth Fund

The State of Missouri declared war against the Mormon Church in 1838. The US Federal Government declared war against the Mormon Church in 1857. The US Federal Government legally disincorporated the Mormon Church in 1890, and began confiscating Mormon Church assets. Many top Mormon leaders today were born in the early 20th century; the current head of the Mormon Church was born in 1924, when many were still alive who had experienced those events first hand. As a result, it comes much more easily to leaders of the Mormon Church to view the Mormon Church as under threat than those who don’t feel this history so keenly would suspect.

Money can’t take care of all kinds of threats, but it can help with some threats. Through a combination of strenuous saving and luck, the Mormon Church has $100 billion in its answer to a sovereign wealth fund. Ian Lovett and Rachael Levy did an excellent job reporting on this for a February 8, 2020 Wall Street Journal article, “The Mormon Church Amassed $100 Billion. It Was the Best-Kept Secret in the Investment World.” All of the quotations below are from that article.

Nathan Eldon Tanner was my grandfather Spencer W. Kimball’s First Counselor in the Presidency of the Mormon Church from 1973 to 1982. I met him during that time and liked him a lot. He had a key role in the history of the Mormon Church’s $100 billion warchest:

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.

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.

Given how much money it asks its members to contribute—10% of their income for “tithing” plus other smaller required donations—the Mormon Church has been eager to keep the extent of its financial assets for the sake of optics. It is not at all clear the Mormon Church has done anything illegal, but a whistleblower to the IRS has brought the Mormon Church’s “Ensign Peak” investment fund into public view.

Ian Lovett and Rachael Levy make these comparisons to help readers appreciate the magnitude of the Ensign Peak fund:

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.

The Ensign Peak fund is not a hedge fund—in part for a religious reason:

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. 

What is the “rainy day” the Ensign Peak fund is meant for? Ian and Rachael’s reporting identified a range of answers given. I add bullets and some emphasis in bold italics to the relevant quotations from their article:

  • “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.” [However, the Great Recession and its aftermath were not in fact bad enough for the Mormon Church to have ever drawn on the Ensign Peak fund

  • 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 … “We believe at some point the savior will return. Nobody knows when" …

    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.”

  • 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.

    ‘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.

I need to explain the last bullet point. The idea is that God will reveal to the President of the church what the Ensign Peak fund is for at some point in the future; for now, what is important to know is that God wants the Mormon Church to have that money saved up; God doesn’t always tell his servants why when He asks them to do something.

One can certainly question the mix of activities the Mormon Church chooses to support financially. But leave that aside for a moment to look instead at the question of when the Mormon Church should spend its financial resources. Although many people think that needs to be met in the world in 2020 are more acute than the needs to be met in the world of 2030, 2040 or 2050, I find that to be a question that reasonable people can differ on. And people are entitled to space for religious beliefs about what the future will be like.

 Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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