- Freedom Holdings is a $4.6 billion market cap online brokerage business, founded in 2008, formerly based in Moscow and later moved to Kazakhstan. Its multi-billionaire Chairman & CEO, Timur Turlov, owns over 70% of the company’s shares and has since inception.
- Since listing on Nasdaq in 2019, Freedom shares have rocketed over 450%, luring investors in with the image of quickly growing firm led by a young, tech-savvy founder.
- Our investigation into the company, undertaken over the course of a year, has included a review of extensive international corporate and regulatory records, interviews with former employees and industry analysis.
- Our research has unveiled a laundry list of red flags including evidence that Freedom (i) brazenly skirts sanctions (ii) shows hallmark signs of fake revenue (iii) commingles customer funds then gambles assets in highly levered, illiquid, risky market bets (iv) and displays signs of market manipulation in both its investments and its publicly traded shares.
- Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Freedom made it clear that both countries, with a combined population of 188 million people, would be key pieces to its growth strategy going forward.
- Following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Freedom fire-sold its Russian business to a Freedom employee for $140 million in order to avoid sanctions. Turlov still secretly controls the entity, according to a former executive we interviewed.
- The move didn’t fool Ukrainian authorities: Ukraine suspended Freedom’s brokerage license and froze its assets. Chairman & CEO Timur Turlov was also personally sanctioned by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky due to his Russian ties.
- Despite ostensibly losing both markets, Freedom now claims its rapid, uninterrupted revenue growth has been fueled by Kazakhstan, a country of just 19 million people with a GDP per capita of $10,373.
- We found that Freedom still does business in the Russian market, and that the company has openly flouted sanctions along with anti-money laundering (AML) and know-your-customer (KYC) rules.
- On August 4, 2023, 11 days ago, the company openly admitted it provided “brokerage services to certain individuals and entities who are subject to sanctions imposed by OFAC, The European Union or the United Kingdom,” in its latest annual report.
- This admission of sanctions evasion follows a long history. Four months after U.S. sanctions against Russia following its 2014 invasion of Ukrainian Crimea, Freedom Chairman & CEO Turlov established his own private entity in Belize (“FFIN Belize”), admitting in later filings that the entity helps Russians sidestep “restrictions” to access U.S. markets.
- In 2015, as a newly listed U.S. company, Freedom expanded its business further when it bought a bank from Vladimir Putin’s Former Chief of Staff, a sanctioned Russian oligarch nicknamed “Darth Vader”.
- Freedom Finance in Russia and Kazakhstan has also helped divert funds from sanctioned banks. For example, in April 2022, the U.S. hit Alfa Bank with the most severe international “full blocking sanctions”, along with an asset freeze. Days later, Freedom openly advertised an easy-to-use service to help clients shift assets out of Alfa Bank.
- Four of Russia’s “financial elite” tied to Alfa Group, including its founder, were sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury just days ago on August 11, 2023. Despite this, FFIN Belize still advertises the ability to send rubles via Alfa Bank, allowing customers to easily funnel rubles via a sanctioned Russian bank right into the U.S. stock market.
- Several months after “full blocking” sanctions were imposed on VTB bank, its customers shared tips over a telegram channel on how to transfer money through Freedom Finance in Kazakhstan.
- Similarly, Tinkoff Bank, on EU, UK and U.S. sanctions lists, also advised its premium customers to open accounts remotely with Freedom Bank Kazakhstan, according to Forbes Russia.
- Former employees described the open flouting of sanctions, along with AML & KYC rules. “This is violating almost every country’s anti-money and anti-terrorist financing laws…I’ve personally seen suitcases with $2.5 million brought in cash by a client”, a former Freedom executive told us.
- Another former Freedom executive told us: “I have never seen an organization so unstructured and just blatantly like I’m sorry for my words, but taking a shit on regulations and rules and basically everything as much as this.”
- The U.S. government has enforced sanctions through an intensive global campaign. Overall, we find it surprising that a publicly-traded company in our own backyard has worked to brazenly undermine those efforts for years.
- Beyond sanctions evasion, Freedom seems to be engaged in a broad variety of corporate malfeasance involving the same Belizean entity privately owned by its Chairman & CEO.
- From 2018–2020, in the lead up to Freedom’s 2019 Nasdaq uplisting, unnamed related parties drove Freedom’s revenue growth, accounting for 67.5% of total reported revenue by 2020.
- The lack of related party disclosures resulted in Freedom’s auditors later being barred and fined by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) for violating audit standards.
- A 2021 exposé first revealed the extent of Freedom’s dealings with its key unnamed related party driving revenue growth, FFIN Belize, resulting in the entity publishing its first and only set of financials.
- FFIN Belize’s lone set of published financials reported $2.5 billion in both trade receivables and payables, but just $5.4 million in cash, a hallmark of circular or fake revenue transactions.
- Freedom has reported an increase of 306% in related party revenue from FFIN Belize since 2020. It reported fee and commission revenue of $196.3 million from FFIN Belize in FY 2023. Freedom has directed this money back to FFIN Belize with $289 million in margin loans to the entity.
- 25% of Freedom’s reported revenue comes from this related party in Belize, as of Freedom’s most recent annual financials. FFIN Belize has not provided financials of its own since 2020, despite being run by Freedom’s Chairman & CEO.
- Beyond sanctions evasion & signs of fake revenue, FFIN Belize also commingles customer assets, placing them at extreme risk. Buried in FFIN Belize’s risk disclosures is mention of a “special brokerage account” saying it can commingle client funds and essentially do whatever it wants with them for its “own interests”.
- One selling point for Freedom’s customers has been Turlov’s claim that its clients have access to hot IPO allocations through FFIN Belize, which obtains the stakes from an unnamed hedge fund. “No one knows” who the hedge fund is, one former told us. “My suspicion is there is no actual IPO [allocation].”
- The entity has also offered high ‘guaranteed’ return products to lure in customers. In October 2021, Kazakhstan’s financial market regulator blacklisted FFIN Belize for ‘signs of illegal activity’ relating to such products.
- “…we found out that they don’t actually execute trades. So where the money goes, nobody knows,” a former Freedom executive told us, explaining that FFIN Belize received funds through offices in Russia but wasn’t actually trading the securities as promised.
- “I wouldn’t even be surprised if all of this was all manipulated and they weren’t even investing in stocks,” another former told us.
- All the while, Freedom has used funds to take on high leverage and market risk. While it claims it has “conservative risk management” and “limits the amount of credit exposure to any one issuer”, SEC filings show Freedom invested 35% of its gross principal trading balance, or $835 million, in the debt of just one Kazakh issuer. The position is larger than Freedom’s shareholder equity balance of $777 million.
- Freedom also disclosed that as of March 2023 its $2.4 billion in trading securities were financed with ~$1.5 billion in short term liabilities with maturities under 30 days. Meanwhile, the bonds are extremely illiquid with a 30-day average volume of just $16.6 million. Freedom’s position represents a full 50 days of trading volume.
- Those same Kazakh bond investments yield lower returns than the short-term rates used to finance them. We estimate Freedom loses $0.5 million to $33 million per year on this concentrated, leveraged, negative carry trade.
- Freedom aggressively increased its position in the bond issuer from $297 million in December 2021 to $720 million in December 2022, during a period of seemingly artificially inflated prices. In January 2023, Kazakhstan’s financial regulator reported that the issuer’s bonds were being manipulated.
- In brief, Freedom seems to be relying on short term, expensive leverage to hold a massive, illiquid, money losing position in bonds that have likely been propped up by Freedom’s own purchases. This poses an existential risk for Freedom and any commingled customer assets.
- We also uncovered hallmarks of market manipulation in Freedom’s own stock, including inexplicably steady trading volume and price, seemingly impervious to both market-wide events and company specific negative news.
- Over the last 1.5 years, over 59% of trading in Freedom’s stock has been driven by two tiny brokerage firms with ties to Freedom: (1) Lek Securities, accounting for over 59% of trading volume in 2022 despite accounting for just 0.06% of trading volume on NASDAQ and (2) Vision Financial Markets, accounting for ~17% of YTD 2023 reported trading volume in Freedom despite comprising only 0.03% of NASDAQ volume.
- Both Lek and Vision have clearing arrangements with Freedom, indicating a close relationship. Lek was charged with manipulative trading by the SEC in 2017 alongside a Ukrainian brokerage firm. Its founder was barred from the securities industry in 2019.
- Vision was barred by the National Futures Association in 2014 but relaunched. Subsequently, it has accumulated a rap sheet of 26 regulatory sanctions over issues including a lack of effective AML procedures and a “failure to prevent and detect potentially manipulative trading activity”, according to FINRA and Nasdaq enforcement actions.
- A former Vision executive summed up the brokerage’s business model: “the takeaway—and I talked about ‘dodgy’—is that Vision’s operating in areas that other firms don’t want to operate in.” He described Vision’s business as “a little bit dangerous” and confirmed Freedom is its “biggest customer”.
- Finally, Freedom itself has been subject to multiple regulatory sanctions. Four Freedom entities in Kazakhstan have accrued 244 penalties, resulting in 121 sanctions, over allegations ranging from money laundering to terrorism financing.
- Freedom has also failed to disclose an ongoing SEC investigation since at least October 2021, according to reporting by Disclosure Insight.
- All told, Freedom Holding has exhibited a startling array of red flags relating to virtually every category of financial malfeasance worthy of investigation.
Background: A $4.6 Billion Market Cap Online Brokerage Business Formerly Based In Moscow, Later Moved To Kazakhstan
Freedom Holdings is an online retail brokerage business based in Kazakhstan that generates around 71% of its total revenue from Central Asia and Eastern Europe. [Pg. 9] In addition to brokerage services, the company offers a range of other financial services including investment counseling, banking, and insurance products. [1,2,3]The business was founded in 2008 in Moscow by its now multi-billionaire Chairman & CEO, Timur Turlov, who has held over 70% of the company’s shares since inception.
Freedom went public in the US in 2015 through a reverse merger with an oil and gas company trading on the over the counter (OTC) market. [Pgs. 4–5] The company uplisted to NASDAQ in 2019.The retail trading mania during the pandemic helped propel rapid account growth for Freedom. As of March 31, 2020, the company reported 140,000 client accounts. [Pg. 2] By 2023, just three years later, that number grew to 370,000 client accounts.In February 2023, Freedom announced it would further its “strategy of acquisitions” and expand its presence in the U.S. investment banking industry through a $400 million bid for Maxim Group, a low-tier investment bank. Since listing on NASDAQ in 2019, Freedom’s shares have rocketed over 450%, trading just ~9% off all-time highs with a market cap of $4.6 billion.
For the casual observer, Freedom looks like a retail brokerage firm led by a young, tech-savvy founder, expanding from a niche regional market to other exciting lines of business. [1,2,3]Despite this, even if one were to take Freedom’s reported fundamentals at face value (which requires ignoring numerous red flags), the company trades at an elevated 5.3x sales and 22x earnings. By comparison, peers in similar riskier jurisdictions like XTB and Plus500 trade at ~5.3x earnings.
Freedom Lost 2 Of Its Top 3 Key Growth Markets In 2022–2023: Russia And Ukraine
Freedom Fire-Sold Its Russian Business To One Of Its Own Senior Executives In An Effort To Avert Sanctions
In Ukraine, Freedom Was Hit With Sanctions Anyway: Its Brokerage License Was Suspended And Its Assets Were Frozen. It Remains Sanctioned To This Day
In a 2020 presentation, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Freedom emphasized that Russia and Ukraine, collectively, accounted for 2 of its top 3 key “strategy and growth drivers”.
Yet after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Freedom supposedly lost access to both markets:#1 Ukraine. In October 2022, Ukrainian authorities suspended Freedom’s Ukrainian brokerage license and froze its assets following its inclusion on a government sanctions list. It remains on the list to this day.
#2 Russia. In October 2022, Freedom announced it would sell its Russian business for $140 million to an employee. The transaction was completed in February 2023.Freedom has removed all investor presentations from its website as of this writing.
The “Key Market” Supposedly Supporting Freedom’s Reported Financials Is Now Kazakhstan, A Country With 19 Million People And a GDP Per Capita of $10,373
After losing the Russian market of ~144 million people and the Ukrainian market of ~44 million people, Freedom now claims its massive growth has been driven by customers in its next largest “key market”, the tiny nation of Kazakhstan, which has a population of just 19 million.
Specifically, Freedom’s 2023 revenue for Central Asia & Eastern Europe, in which its key market is Kazakhstan, stood at $566 million, increasing 154% year over year. [Pg. 73]Kazakhstan’s income inequality and widespread poverty hardly seems to be an environment capable of delivering Freedom´s claimed growth.In late January 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev addressed a meeting of Kazakh-based oligarchs in the wake of countrywide riots sparked by fuel price hikes. Freedom CEO Turlov was at the meeting. Tokayev said:
“International experts say that only 162 people own half of Kazakhstan’s wealth. While half of the population’s monthly income doesn’t exceed $114. That’s just over $1,300 a year. It’s almost impossible to live on such money. As I said, such stratification and inequality is dangerous.”
Part I – Key To Freedom’s Growth: Skirting Sanctions
On August 4, 2023, (11 Days Ago) Freedom Admitted It Provided “Brokerage Services To Certain Individuals And Entities Who Are Subject To Sanctions Imposed By OFAC, The European Union Or The United Kingdom”
Key stages of Freedom´s expansion have been reached thanks to Turlov´s willingness to do business with sanctioned Russian oligarchs or Kazakh businessmen closely linked to their country´s corrupt political elites.With business operations in strategically opaque geographic locations, Turlov and Freedom, despite their obligations under U.S. law, have seemingly defied sanctions, facilitated money laundering and aided clients in skirting currency controls to move funds out of Russia.In its recent annual report filed on August 4, 2023, Freedom openly admitted that it provided “brokerage services to certain individuals and entities who are subject to sanctions imposed by OFAC, The European Union or the United Kingdom”. [Pg. 25]
It sought to justify these transactions by saying the very same services “did not involve any nexus with the United States, the European Union or the United Kingdom”. [Pg. 25]
In other words, Freedom – a U.S. listed company—acknowledges providing financial services to individuals who have specifically been targeted by sanctions deemed to be of U.S. national strategic importance.
“This Is Violating Almost Every Country’s Anti-Money And Anti-Terrorist Financing Laws…I’ve Personally Seen Suitcases With $2.5 Million Brought In Cash By A Client”— Former Freedom Senior Executive
“I Have Never Seen An Organization So Unstructured And Just Blatantly…Taking A Shit On Regulations and Rules”—Former Freedom Sales Rep
According to multiple former employee interviews, Freedom Finance offices in Russia and Kazakhstan routinely channel clients into an opaque Belizean entity privately owned by Freedom’s CEO. (The entity was named FFIN Brokerage Services. It is now renamed Freedom Securities Trading and referred to here as “FFIN Belize”).FFIN Belize has grown to become a key driver of Freedom’s claimed revenue—representing 25% of last year’s reported revenue alone. [Pgs. 62, 95] Attempting to crack open the FFIN Belize “black box” and discover its mechanics, we talked to former employees.They told us that the FFIN Belize entity was used to funnel money out of Russia, often in cash, with no regard for KYC and AML protocols.A former senior executive, who worked for Freedom in Russia and later in Kazakhstan between 2018–2020, described the extent of Freedom’s KYC and AML checks:
“Literally nothing. Just bring your money. There’s no source of income, source of funds. There’s no KYC. Nothing. The best part is this is violating almost every country’s anti-money and anti-terrorist financing laws. They could bring cash. I’ve personally seen suitcases with $2.5 million brought in cash by a client.”
An account manager who worked until 2023 with Freedom Finance in Russia (later renamed Cifra Broker) corroborated this:
“Actually you could even come with cash to Freedom.”
Another former employee, who worked for Freedom Holding in the UAE (before the company was incorporated there and even though it has not yet been licensed to offer financial services there) explained that meetings with clients were conducted in private rooms at high-end hotels and that cash investments were readily accepted:
“If I have to give a ballpark estimate, I think about 80% of that came from either cash or cryptocurrencies.”
They said Freedom then moved cash out of Dubai using local, informal Hawala money transfer networks – a system that has become notorious for facilitating money laundering and terrorist financing.The former employee said most Freedom clients in Dubai were Russian or “East European origin”. Anyone who did not pass KYC and proof-of-funds checks was re-routed to open accounts at FFIN Belize:
“We have clear guidelines. You know, if it’s a vanilla client, Cyprus. If it’s not a vanilla client, then Belize…We call it vanilla, like, you know, like clean clients, vanilla flavored, like, you know, the ice cream, vanilla. It’s like the cleanest flavor.”
“I’ll be honest with you, I think I only sent one client to the Cyprus one because the rest of all of these clients were basically to Belize accounts.”
The former employee said Freedom Holding knowingly flouted KYC rules to move dirty money:
“They were basically cowboys. They found a way to actually take the oligarch money, send it across the world, put it into the stock markets.”
“I have never seen an organization so unstructured and just blatantly like I’m sorry for my words, but taking a shit on regulations and rules and basically everything as much as this.”
These issues have persisted through the years, per our findings.
Freedom’s CEO’s Belize Entity (“FFIN Belize”) Was Established In 2014, 4 Months After U.S. Sanctions Against Russia Following Its Invasion of Ukrainian Crimea
A Freedom Filing Acknowledged That FFIN Belize Helps Russians Sidestep “Restrictions” In Order to Access U.S. Markets
Freedom Holding Chairman & CEO Turlov incorporated his privately-held FFIN Belize in July 2014, just 4 months after Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine´s Crimea region, sparking a first wave of global sanctions.In its filings, Freedom Holding makes no overt reference to the 2014 sanctions but does explain that Turlov set up his private, Belize-registered entity (called “FFIN Brokerage” in filings) to help investors sidestep Russian regulations and restrictions:
“July 2014, Timur Turlov established FFIN Brokerage. As a foreign broker dealer, FFIN Brokerage had been able to provide investors in Russia and Kazakhstan with easier access to the U.S. securities markets than a Russian or Kazakhstan company could provide, due to applicable regulations in Russia and Kazakhstan which imposed restrictions on foreign currency accounts, required mandatory securities custody in-country, and limited access to foreign securities” [Pg. 39]
2015: As A Newly U.S‑Listed Company, Freedom’s Business Expanded When It Bought A Bank From Putin’s Former Chief Of Staff, A Sanctioned Russian Oligarch Nicknamed “Darth Vader”
Freedom incorporated in Russia in 2008 but its fledgling brokerage business grew significantly following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukrainian Crimea.In the wake of the invasion, the U.S. sanctioned oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. These oligarchs included Igor Sechin who served as Putin’s former Chief of Staff, Deputy Prime Minister and later CEO of state oil company Rosneft. Sechin also had control of Okhabank, a regional bank, via his role as CEO at Rosneft.Nicknamed “Darth Vader”, Sechin has been described as the second most important person in Russia after Putin. These international sanctions created opportunities for those willing to help oligarchs evade restrictions –including Turlov and Freedom.
In March 2015, when Turlov was just 27 years old, Sechin began divesting Okhabank to Freedom, which later ironically renamed the bank Freedom Finance Bank.Just 8 months later, in November 2015, Turlov took Freedom public in the U.S. via a reverse merger with an oil and gas company trading on the over the counter (OTC) market. [Pg. 4] The deal to purchase Okhabank from its sanctioned owners was fully completed in April 2016, five months after Freedom had gone public.The acquisition closed at a time when U.S. sanctions prohibited U.S. citizens or entities, ostensibly including the newly listed Freedom Holding, from dealing with sanctioned individuals and corporations, like Sechin and Rosneft.
Following Russia’s 2022 Ukraine Invasion, Freedom Fire-Sold Its Russian Business To A Related Party For $140 Million In Order To Avoid Sanctions
CEO Turlov and The Buyer Were “Childhood Friends”, According to A Former Executive
As of March 2021, Freedom had more offices in Russia than any other country, per its annual report. [Pg. 7] Freedom was the 9th largest broker in the country, according to media reports.In June 2022, 4 months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turlov announced his intention to ‘divest’ the Russia business by selling it to himself. Turlov hoped the move would somehow avoid sanctions, saying the company’s most robust business would now technically “exist independently of the holding company”.In October, Freedom instead signed an agreement to sell its Russian businesses for $140 million to an employee. The purchase price represented roughly 3.3% of the company’s market cap at the time, despite the businesses comprising 25% of its revenue and much of its claimed future growth potential. [Pg. 118] [Pgs. 4, 71]The buyer was Maxim Povalishin, the Deputy General Director and a member of the Board of Directors of Freedom’s Russian subsidiary, per Freedom’s press release. The deal was comprised of a $51.5 million cash payment and assumption of an $88.5 million liability by the buyer.
Despite The Russia “Sale”, Turlov Still Controls The Entity, A Former Senior Executive At Freedom Told Us
A former senior executive of Freedom Holding who had personally worked with both Turlov and Povalishin described the sale of Freedom Finance Russia to Povalishin as a ruse to skirt sanctions:
“Maxim Povalishin, basically the buyer, he’s the head of the back office of Turlov´s Belize entity. So he’s like his childhood friend, right? And he still works there. So he just made it seem like he sold the entity to his friend for like a hundred and some million dollars. Although the guy had like $5 million to his name tops.”
“So I’m assuming what they did, what they did is he just made it seem for, you know, the purposes of sanctions and the whole image of supporting Russia and doing business in Russia, that they sold off the Russian entity. But he (Turlov) still controls it.”
The Move Didn’t Fool Ukrainian Authorities: Ukraine Suspended Freedom’s Brokerage License And Froze Its Assets
Timur Turlov Was Also Personally Sanctioned By Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Due To His Russian Ties
As noted above, coupled with Russia, Ukraine was set to be a major “growth driver” for Freedom. [Slide 11].According to its 2021 annual report, Freedom had a significant presence in Ukraine with 13 offices nationwide. [Pg. 7] Just two days after Freedom’s deal to shed Russian assets was signed on October 17, 2022, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky issued a decree sanctioning Freedom’ Founder and CEO Turlov, along with other individuals, for allegedly abetting the Russian regime or its financial system.The 17 specific sanction measures included an asset freeze, a termination of all business activities, a ban on moving assets out of the country and a ban on entering Ukraine.The Ukrainian asset freeze included 12,800 Freedom customer accounts and about U.S. $95 million in assets, along with a suspension of Freedom’s Ukrainian brokerage license for 5 years.
Freedom issued a press release two days after the decree saying it was “stunned” to learn of the decision by Ukrainian authorities, calling it an “error”. It stated that its agreement to divest Russian assets to an employee, made less than a week earlier, and Turlov´s adoption of Kazakh citizenship 3 months earlier in June 2022 were signs the company had severed ties with Russia.The company said it believed the sanctions would “be resolved quickly.”Current checks of Ukrainian government sanction lists show that the sanctions are still active.
“After Russia Invaded Ukraine, Thousands of Russians Came To Freedom Finance (Kazakhstan) To Open Accounts And Transfer Their Assets”– Former Freedom Finance Employee
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan has tried to balance the role of being a key Russian ally while maintaining cordial relations with the West.There is growing evidence, and concern from the U.S. Treasury Department, that Kazakhstan has become the “Kremlin´s Secret Ally”, helping Russia circumvent wartime sanctions, moving banned goods in and helping hundreds of thousands of Russians move money out.As such, Kazakhstan is an important bridgehead for Freedom from which it can continue to attract Russian money while retaining access to global markets.A recent former employee of Freedom Finance´s brokerage and banking in Kazakhstan said he had witnessed a sharp, initial upturn in Russian money moving via Kazakhstan:
“After Russia invaded Ukraine, thousands of Russians came to Freedom Finance (Kazakhstan) to open accounts and transfer their assets.”
A former employee of Freedom Holding from London described the company´s scramble to prepare for the consequences of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine as “a process of taking out Russian business from our holding”.They told us that part of that plan included handling Russian-facing business from Kazakhstan:
“Still Kazakh market is very close to Russian market, like territorially and everything, and we still can take care of the clients from Kazakh offices and stuff.”
Freedom Finance In Russia and Kazakhstan Has Helped Shift Funds From Sanctioned Banks
For Example, On April 6, 2022, The U.S. Hit Alfa Bank With the Most Severe International “Full Blocking Sanctions”, Along With An Asset Freeze
Days Later, Freedom Advertised an Easy-To-Use Service to Help Clients Shift Assets Out of Alfa Bank
Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank, had been subject to U.S. sanctions since the start of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Alfa´s founder, sanctioned multi-billionaire oligarch Mikhail Fridman, is reportedly a close associate of Russian President Vladmir Putin, described as an “enabler of Putin´s inner circle”.On April 6, 2022, the White House and EU hit Alfa Bank with “full blocking sanctions” – some of the most severe U.S. sanctions. [1,2] The new measures meant customers would lose access to foreign securities and all transactions would be frozen.The move effectively prohibits any U.S. citizen or entity doing business with the bank. A White House statement announcing the sanctions said:
“This action will freeze any of Sberbank’s and Alfa Bank’s assets touching the U.S financial system and prohibit U.S. persons from doing business with them…Alfa Bank is Russia’s largest privately-owned financial institution and Russia’s fourth largest financial institution overall.”
The U.S. Treasury set a deadline of until May 6, 2022 for all transactions with Alfa Bank to be terminated. Freedom Finance Russia (before it claimed to have been ‘divested’) stepped in to facilitate moving customer assets from the already sanctioned bank, when many others brokerages wouldn’t.Freedom Finance Russia openly touted this service, according to archived copies of its website, stating “all you need to do is open an account (with Freedom Finance).”
Four Of Russia’s “Financial Elite” Tied To Alfa Group, Including Its Founder, Were Sanctioned By The U.S. Treasury Only Days Ago On August 11, 2023
Sanctions related to Alfa Group continue to be active and ongoing. Days ago, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced new sanctions on “prominent members of Russia’s financial elite”.New sanctions targeted the founder and supervisory board of Alfa Group. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo commented:
“Wealthy Russian elites should disabuse themselves of the notion that they can operate business as usual while the Kremlin wages war against the Ukrainian people. Our international coalition will continue to hold accountable those enabling the unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.”
Despite The Sanctions, FFIN Belize Still Advertises The Ability To Send Rubles Via Alfa Bank
This Allows Customers To Funnel Rubles Via A Banned Russian Bank Into the U.S. Stock Market
Freedom continues to publicly offer clients ways to circumvent sanctions through Alfa Bank.Turlov´s privately-owned FFIN Belize entity’s website, which displays a 2023 copyright, offers customers two options to fund their brokerage accounts in Russian rubles by depositing funds into FFIN Belize accounts in Moscow. One option is with Alfa Bank.
In short, FFIN Belize offers Russians a path to funnel rubles via one of Russia´s most heavily sanctioned banks through a Belize-licensed brokerage right onto the U.S. stock market.One of the former senior executives we spoke to explained that clients could deposit funds in rubles or other currencies in Russia and receive funds back from FFIN Belize in U.S. dollars and/or Emirati Dirham to accounts anywhere in the world.
Several Months After Sanctions Were Imposed On Russian VTB Bank, Its Customers Shared Tips Over A Telegram Channel On Moving Money From VTB To Freedom Finance In Kazakhstan
Alfa Bank is not the only example where Freedom appears to have helped clients move assets out of a sanctioned Russian bank.On February 24, 2022, the U.S. Treasury announced full blocking sanctions against VTB, the second largest Russian bank, per a press release. Despite this, we found examples of customers getting around these sanctions and transferring funds via VTB into Freedom Finance.
Customers discussed a similar VTB scheme in another online public forum on the popular Russian travel site Awd.ru, under a heading translated as “transferring money from Russia to your account in Kazakhstan”. The posts name Freedom Finance Kazakhstan as a bank accepting transfers from VTB.The scheme was explained by a user as involving a multi layered transaction: 1) Purchase Kazakh Tenge currency through VTB; 2) Withdraw funds to a VTB Account; 3) Send the funds to Freedom Finance. [Post 5340]
One user on July 5th, 2022 stated that Freedom Finance had accepted this type of transfer, while another Kazakh bank, BCC, had rejected it.
Forbes Russia: Sanctioned Tinkoff Bank Advised Its Customers To Open Accounts With Freedom Bank Kazakhstan
Amid the influx of Russians to Kazakhstan, Tinkoff Bank – placed on EU and UK sanctions lists in February 2023 and May 2023, and on the U.S. sanctions list on July 20, 2023– advised its premium customers to open accounts remotely with Freedom Bank Kazakhstan, according to Forbes Russia. The head of Tinkoff Bank’s investment arm, Tinkoff Investments, is Dmitry Panchenko, a longtime associate of Turlov who was Deputy CEO of Freedom Finance RU from 2011–2019, according to his LinkedIn profile.
In sum, we are left to assume that Freedom Holding’s growth in Kazakhstan is likely to have come from using Kazakhstan as a surreptitious bridge into Russia, rather than organic domestic growth.
Overall: We Find It Unfathomable That A U.S.-Listed Public Company Trading On The Nasdaq Exchange Has Brazenly Worked To Systematically Avert U.S. Sanctions For Years
The U.S. government has enforced its Russian sanctions through an intensive global campaign:
“We’ve grounded planes in Switzerland and the Middle East. We’ve arrested smugglers in Italy, in Germany, in Latvia. And we’ve charged money launderers in the U.K. So basically, what we’ve shown is there’s no place to hide,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told 60 Minutes.
Given these ongoing widespread international enforcement efforts, we find surprising that Freedom has managed to hide in plain sight as a U.S.-listed public company trading on the Nasdaq.
Part II: 25% Of Freedom’s Revenue Is Derived From One Opaque Related Party In Belize With Hallmarks of Fake Revenue
Beyond sanctions, Freedom seems to be engaged in a broad variety of corporate malfeasance involving the same Belizean entity privately owned by its Chairman & CEO, Timur Turlov.Normally when one customer makes up a considerable concentration of a public company’s revenue, investors are provided thorough detail on the relationship.In the case of Freedom, its largest contributor to revenue comes from CEO Timur Turlov’s “black box” Belizean entity. Given Turlov’s unique insight into this “customer”, these circumstances would normally prompt fulsome disclosure about its operations.Except, in this case of Freedom’s largest contributor to revenue, we get the opposite: paltry disclosure and questionable financials from an entity with virtually no physical signs of existence.
2018–2020: Mysterious Unnamed Related Party Customers Drive Freedom’s Revenue Growth, Accounting for 67.5% Of Total Revenue By 2020
In the lead up to Freedom’s uplisting to NASDAQ in 2019, pressure to show solid performance mounted. SEC filings show that Freedom’s reliance on related parties for its claimed brokerage revenue exploded.Related parties as a percentage of total revenue increased from 10.9% in fiscal year 2018, to 52% in fiscal year 2019. By fiscal year 2020, related parties accounted for 67.5% of Freedom’s total reported revenue.
Despite the massive reliance on, and risk tied to these related parties, Freedom chose not to disclose details on the specific entities involved. Instead, it listed revenue values for unnamed related party transactions, such as Note 23 in Freedom’s 2020 annual report, disclosing commission income earned from unnamed related parties:
Lack Of Related Party Disclosures In 2019 and 2020 Later Resulted In Freedom’s Auditors Being Barred And Fined By The PCAOB For Violating Audit Standards
This lack of disclosure didn’t go unnoticed by regulators. In 2022, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) announced sanctions against three accountants at Freedom’s auditor, Utah-based WSRP, for failures relating to its accounting of Freedom’s relationship with related parties.
According to the PCAOB, two WSRP partners failed to “Identify that Freedom’s 2019 and 2020 financial statements did not contain necessary disclosures regarding a related party and its relationship with Freedom and its CEO”.The PCAOB order specifically identified the entity as a “Belize Affiliate” owned by Freedom’s CEO.
2021: Following An Online Exposé, Freedom Began Disclosing Details About This Key Related Party Entity, Revealing It Was A Belize-Registered Brokerage Firm Owned By Chairman & CEO Turlov
A December 2020 exposé by the Foundation for Financial Journalism first revealed the extent of Freedom’s dealings with the unnamed related party driving revenue growth, called FFIN Brokerage Services (now renamed Freedom Securities Trading and referred to here as “FFIN Belize”).Prior to 2021, Freedom’s annual and quarterly SEC filings made no reference to FFIN Belize driving related party revenue growth.Following the exposé, in its 2021 annual report, Freedom disclosed that FFIN Belize was privately controlled by Turlov and that the entity posed a significant risk to Freedom due to revenue concentration and “evolving market regulations”.
In restated SEC filings for fiscal year 2021, Freedom disclosed that FFIN Belize accounted for a material 19% of Freedom’s total revenue. [Pgs. 62, 65]
2021: FFIN Belize Provided One-Off Audited Financials On Its Website
The Statements Showed $2.5 Billion In Both Trade Receivables And Trade Payables, With An Inexplicably Low Cash Balance Of Only $5.4 Million, Red Flags Of Circular Fake Revenue Transactions
An Audit Of FFIN Belize Has Not Been Posted Since
Several months after the exposé and around the same time as the new disclosure in Freedom’s SEC filings, a financial statement for the year ended 2020 was posted to FFIN Belize’s website.The financial statement raises more questions than it answers. FFIN Belize reported only $5.4 million in cash and minimal other account balances, while also reporting over $2.465 billion in receivables and $2.562 billion of payables balances.In other words, the entity most crucial to Freedom’s top line supposedly carried a cash position of just ~0.2% of its payable and receivable accounts, indicating that these accounts are not settling in cash in any meaningful fashion.For context, if FFIN hypothetically converted a paltry 5% of its receivables to cash, it would be expected to have ~$123 million on its books, nearly 25 times what it held.
We have not been able to find any updates on FFIN’s financial statements since the lone 2020 audit, but we think Freedom should share all FFIN Belize audits with investors given its shared ownership and critical importance to the public entity.
Freedom Has Reported An Increase Of 306% In Related Party Revenue From FFIN Belize Since 2020
Freedom Reported Fee and Commission Revenue Of $196.3 Million From FFIN Belize In Fiscal Year 2023
The claimed revenue contribution from FFIN Belize has grown rapidly from $48.4 million in 2020 to $196.3 million in fiscal year 2023. This represented over 29% of Freedom Holding’s total revenue in the past 3 years. [Pgs. 63, 125 & Pgs. 62, 95]
Freedom Has Directed Money Right Back With $289 Million In Margin Loans To FFIN Belize Customers, Representing 77% Of Its Margin Loan Receivables
Freedom Claims In Filings That It “Do(es) Not Have Direct Access To Information On FFIN Belize’s Customers” Relating To The Claimed Loan Balances, Despite Freedom CEO Turlov Owning Both Companies
Beyond fee and commission revenue, Freedom reported that as of 2023, it had $289 million of outstanding margin loans due from FFIN Belize, representing 77% of its margin loan receivables. [Pg. 145]With such an acute level of risk tied to an opaque related party, one might expect Freedom to disclose significant information, but Freedom provides no information on the beneficiaries of these loans.Even stranger is Freedom’s claim that it can’t provide more detail because it does not have “direct access to information on FFIN Belize’s customers,” despite Freedom’s own Chairman & CEO running and controlling the entity.Per the company’s December 2022 10‑Q:
“For margin lending to FFIN Brokerage [Belize], these risks may be increased by the fact that we do not have direct access to information on FFIN Brokerage’s [Belize’s] customers, who are the ultimate recipients of the loans.” [Pg. 96]
In its March 2023 10‑K, Freedom reiterated that “we do not currently have direct access to FST Belize’s customer check systems.” [Pg. 25]Because FFIN Belize is technically privately controlled, it is not subject to the same SEC reporting requirements and disclosure rules as Freedom’s listed entity. This means that, despite Turlov overseeing the brokerage and likely having a full grasp on its business, this crucial contributor to the listed entity’s financials, is essentially a conveniently timed, rapidly growing, black box – all by Turlov’s choice.In summary, FFIN Belize’s financials indicate that Freedom is likely using customer assets to report fake revenue through opaque circular transactions with Turlov entities and affiliates.
Part III: Freedom’s Key Related-Party Belize Entity Commingles Customer Assets, Placing Them At Extreme Risk
As detailed earlier in Part I, per interviews with former employees, Freedom’s ‘high-risk’ customers are diverted to FFIN Belize, a structure that effectively bypasses Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Know-Your-Customer (KYC) requirements, as well as evades sanctions and other potential compliance issues.Once those assets are in the control of the Belize entity, they appear to be used in suspicious circular revenue transactions that inflate Freedom’s claimed revenue to investors, as detailed in Part II.Beyond those critical issues, we have identified signs that FFIN Belize’s customer assets have been further misused by Turlov.Freedom’s customers seem to believe the company’s related-party Belize entity is a trustworthy tool for deploying capital to western markets. But evidence shows that Turlov has commingled the entity’s assets and used them to take on massive leverage and trading risks, exposing customers to potential capital loss.
Buried Within FFIN Belize’s Risk Disclosures Is Mention Of A “Special Brokerage Account”, Where FFIN Belize Says It Can Commingle Client Funds And Effectively Do Whatever It Wants With Them For Its “Own Interests”
Every credible brokerage and banking firm segregates customer assets in order to ringfence and protect them in case the firm runs into trouble. Most major crises involving failed brokerage firms (FTX, Celsius Network and MF Global, among many examples) have occurred because the firms in question violated this basic customer safety principle.FFIN Belize’s website contains a risk disclosure statement, which deals with “risks associated with operations in the securities market”. Within it, FFIN Belize deems its clients to have accepted and acknowledged the risks of highly unusual operations, including allowing the entity to use their funds/securities “in its own interests” via a “special brokerage account”. [Pg. 11]
FFIN Belize admits it unifies client funds in one account, which may lead to customer’s money being written off. [Pg. 12] FFIN Belize also states “the Company shall have the right to use the Client’s monetary funds/securities in its own interests free of charge”.
In other words, customers of FFIN Belize are allowing their funds or securities to be used discretionarily, for purposes unknown, by Turlov. The risk statement even acknowledges the “peculiarities of the functioning of special brokerage accounts”, likely given that it violates the brokerage industry’s single most critical customer safeguard. [Pg. 12]We believe such disclosures are an attempt to provide legal cover and carte blanche authorization for highly irregular conduct that puts customer assets at extreme risk.
Unlike Other Brokerage Firms, FFIN Belize’s Audited Financials Lack Details On Segregation Of Customer Assets From Company Assets
As we noted above, FFIN Belize’s website added a financial statement from the year ended 2020 that showed hallmarks of circular revenue transactions. The same financial statements also raise questions about misappropriation of customer funds.FFIN Belize’s audit did not report any “ringfenced” customer assets, a distinction that makes clear which assets belong to the brokerage versus the customer. This stands at odds with virtually every other major brokerage business.For U.S. issuers, SEC Rule 15c3‑3 governs segregation of client assets from the firm’s assets. The purpose of such segregation is to allow clients to obtain their assets if the firm becomes insolvent. Regulatory agencies like FINRA also note the importance of such obligations as a safeguard for customer assets:
“Firms are obligated to maintain custody of customer securities and safeguard customer cash by segregating these assets from the firm’s proprietary business activities, and promptly deliver to their owner upon request.”
Roping Customers In: In August Of 2021, Turlov Claimed That Freedom Clients Could Get Hot IPO Allocations Through FFIN Belize, Generating 59% Returns On Average
When Pressed By Media, Turlov Claimed The IPO Allocations Were Obtained From An Unnamed Hedge Fund
A Freedom Former Account Manager Told Us “No One Knows” Who The Hedge Fund Is And Doubted Whether It Really Exists
IPO allocations are near-impossible to source for retail traders and even difficult to source for many of the most connected investors on Wall Street.Yet one key offering promoted by Freedom has been its ability to give customers access to popular IPOs.
When questioned on this offering, Turlov claimed that little-known Freedom sources its numerous IPO allocations through shadowy means, explaining to Bloomberg in August 2021 that its IPO offerings were routed through a “mystery hedge fund”.
According to the article, Freedom’s related party, FFIN Belize, purchased IPO stock from a “mystery” affiliated hedge fund which Freedom then monetizes:
“Turlov has that Belize-registered entity, FFIN Brokerage Services Inc., buy it [IPO stock from the affiliate] and eventually pass it to Freedom for a fee.”
No more detail on the mystery fund was provided, begging obvious questions as to why this unnamed fund is so comfortable handing generous revenue economics to FFIN Belize. Turlov seems to have made no effort to explain why the mystery fund can’t simply work with Freedom directly and instead must go through Turlov’s private Belizean entity. This chart shows the unnecessarily convoluted process:
To learn more about the hedge fund, we reached out to a former Freedom account manager who told us they were unaware of the mystery hedge fund. “No one knows”, they said when asked about who it was. They added:
“My suspicion is that there is no actual IPO…that you have a kind of stock allocation, but you have some kind of derivatives…. I don’t think that it’s a really actual allocation and my mind I think that this is some kind of derivatives.” 
Roping Customers In: In October Of 2021, Kazakhstan’s Financial Market Regulator Blacklisted FFIN Belize For ‘Signs Of Illegal Activity’ Relating To Offering Products That Guarantee Returns
A trait that many investment schemes share, particularly Ponzi schemes, is enticing in new money with promises of high returns, whether IPO returns or others. “Be highly suspicious of any ‘guaranteed’ investment opportunity,” the SEC warns investors.On various Russian language message boards, Freedom users have detailed suspiciously high, guaranteed return products, such as the one below claiming a 25% guaranteed return.
The issue eventually caught the eye of Kazakhstan’s financial market regulator, which blacklisted Freedom’s key related party entity, FFIN Belize, in October of 2021 for ‘signs of illegal activity in the territory of Kazakhstan’ relating to offering products that guarantee returns. The blacklist does not shut down FFIN’s operations in the country, but serves as a clear warning to potential customers.In a media statement, FFIN Belize denied it was engaged in any illegal activity.
A subsequent February 2023 Kazakh government notice still showed FFIN on the blacklist.
A Former Freedom Senior Executive Explained That FFIN Belize Received Funds Through Freedom Holdings Offices In Russia,But Wasn’t Actually Trading Securities As Promised
“We Found Out That They Don’t Actually Execute Trades. So Where The Money Goes, Nobody Knows”
One former senior Freedom executive we spoke with was very familiar with the operations of FFIN Belize while they were at the company around 2020.Based on their first-hand experience, the former executive told us that Freedom Russia clients were routinely advised to open accounts with the Belize entity to gain better access to U.S. stock markets.Freedom Holding’s infrastructure was effectively serving as a front office to funnel clients to Turlov´s privately-owned offshore entity, we were told:
“So the traders, the trading desk, the back office lawyers, they were all in Moscow. But as far as I know, the trade desk has moved to Cyprus now. In Belize there’s no presence at all. Never has been any presence in Belize.”
“So they (Freedom Holding) have a Russian license from the Central Bank of Russia to provide brokerage services. And they have offices in almost every city in Russia. There’s like 40 offices, right? What happens when a client goes in there? He goes, well, through this entity, there’s a bank and there’s a brokerage you can only trade like a handful of securities. If you want real access to US markets, if you want access to IPOs, U.S. IPOs, then you need to become a client of Freedom Belize. So basically, every client that comes in into a Russian office is diverted to Belize.”
They also told us that FFIN Belize frequently didn’t execute client trades:
“So they would take the cash and then they basically would send them a report that now your account has this much cash you can trade. Then we found out that they don’t actually execute trades. So where the money goes, nobody knows.” 
Former Freedom Executive: “He [Turlov] Just Pays That Company Commission Every Quarter Or Whatever He Thinks He Feels Like”
The former employee continued to explain a situation where FFIN Belize received customer assets but wasn’t trading the securities in question. Instead, Turlov was using the company as “his own personal piggy bank”, we were told:
“Because Freedom Belize is not part of Freedom Holding. So essentially, since Freedom Belize is his own personal piggy bank, let’s call it that, it’s the largest client of Freedom Europe, which is Cyprus. Then he just pays that company commission every quarter or whatever he thinks he feels like.”
The executive told us that prior to his leaving the firm he had an argument with Turlov regarding the “Belize” operations:
“I had the question. I’m like, well, what do you do with the money? You just collected billions of dollars into this Belize entity. If you don’t make the trades, what do you do with the money? And then he (Turlov) goes, it’s a good business when statistically 90% of retail traders lose money over time. It’s a good business model. That was his actual words to me, right?”
He then shared his overall take:
“So they just do like some kind of fixed income stuff and kind of hope that the client will eventually lose money and they have to give them less than he gave them originally. That’s the business model of the Belize entity.”
Another Former Freedom Employee Echoed: “I Wouldn’t Even Be Surprised If All Of This Was All Manipulated And They Weren’t Even Investing In Stocks”
Another former employee for Freedom in Dubai echoed that there was no clarity on how actual trading was executed, if at all:
“I’ll be honest, my understanding of how this worked was that, you know, the actual client money, like actual original clients, never really made it anywhere. So those were just kept in as buffer stock or something in these entities in Belize and Cyprus, whereas, you know, they were using some funding or… For them, I wouldn’t even be surprised if all of this was all manipulated and they weren’t even investing in stocks.”
Combined with lingering questions about its revenue, we believe FFIN Belize is misappropriating, misusing, or simply holding its brokerage customers money instead of investing it.
Part IV: Freedom’s Massive Positions In Illiquid And Allegedly Manipulated Bonds, Financed With Short-Term Loans
Once commingled, Freedom seems be gambling customer assets, taking on massive, leveraged market risk.Despite Freedom’s primary focus being the retail brokerage industry, the company has generated 9%-59% of its revenue from proprietary trading from 2017 to present, with no reported down years.In 2023, Freedom reported that proprietary trading contributed over $71 million, or 9% of overall revenue.
Freedom Claims It Has “Conservative Risk Management” Saying It “Limit(s) The Amount of Credit Exposure To Any One Issuer”
SEC Filings Show That Freedom Invested 35% Of Its Gross Principal Trading Balance, Amounting to $835 Million, In the Debt Of One Kazakh Issuer
The Position Is Larger Than Freedom’s Shareholder Equity Balance Of ~$777 Million
Freedom’s massive proprietary gains come with seemingly little risk, according to Freedom’s 2022 annual report. The filing said Freedom adheres to “conservative risk management principles” with a focus on principal protection:
“Our investment policies generally require securities to be investment grade and limit the amount of credit exposure to any one issuer or customer.” [Pg. 6]
According to Freedom’s financial statements at the end of fiscal year 2023, it held a $835 million dollar stake in the debt of an issuer called the Kazakhstan Sustainability Fund JSC, a fund owned by the National Bank of the Republic of Kazakhstan that supports second tier Kazakh banks and provides mortgages in the country. [Pg. 125]The position represented 35% of Freedom’s trading balance, as of the March 2023 annual report.
Leverage: Freedom Reported That Its $2.4 Billion Principal Trading Account Was Financed With ~$1.5 Billion in Short Term Liabilities That Had Maturities Under 30 Days
Freedom’s financial statements disclose that as of March 2023, its $2.4 billion in trading securities were financed largely with short term leverage. [Pg. 39] The company disclosed $1.5 billion dollars in short term funding from “securities sold under repurchase agreements”, 96% of which had a maturity of up to 30 days. [Pg. 135]
Reliance on such high, short-term leverage poses a significant risk if the liquidity or value of the underlying collateral suffers.
The Issuer’s Bonds Are Extremely Illiquid: The 30-Day Average Volume For All Bonds Of the Issuer Totaled $16.6 Million, Suggesting That Freedom Accounts For A Full 50 Days Of Trading Volume
While Freedom does not specify exactly which bonds of the Kazakh Sustainability Fund it has invested in, Bloomberg data on all 28 reported bonds from the issuer show the underlying securities were illiquid and appear to only trade by appointment.Of the 28 bonds, 13 had no volume over the last 30 days.  The total 30-day average volume for all bonds of the issuer with volume was $16.6 million, suggesting that Freedom holds at least a full 50 days of bond volume.Given that Freedom has financed the position with ~$1.5 billion in 30-day or shorter financing, the issuer’s illiquidity seems to pose a substantial risk, with likely massive price impact should Freedom attempt to exit its position.This risk is enhanced given that Freedom owns roughly 38% of the total issuance of the Kazakh Sustainability Fund, making it a major holder.
Freedom’s Main Kazakh Bond Investment Yields Are Lower Than The Cost To Finance The Investments
We Estimate That Freedom Is Losing $0.5 Million To $33 Million Per Year On Its Concentrated, Leveraged, Negative Carry Investment
Freedom’s financing strategy discussed above can be described as having “negative-carry”, a situation that arises when an investment returns less than the cost of financing the investment.
We estimate that Freedom’s $835 million stake in the Kazakh Sustainability Fund is currently generating a lower return than the rate Freedom borrows at via short term repos (repurchase agreements) to finance itself.
The average mid-market yield to maturity (“Mid YTM”) of the 28 issues of the Kazakh Sustainability Fund we analyzed was 15.91%, per Bloomberg. Some bonds had yields as low as 12.07%.By contrast, Freedom discloses its borrowing through repos of “non-US sovereign debt” and “corporate debt” at higher average interest rates of 15.98% and 16.07%, respectively, per its March 2023 annual report. [Pg. 135] This implies on average a negative, loss-making carry of between 0.06%-4%. [Pg. 135]
Freedom Aggressively Increased Its Position In The Bond Issuer By 2.4x, From $297 Million In December 2021 To $720 Million In December 2022
In January 2023, Kazakhstan’s Financial Regulator Reported That The Issuer’s Bonds Were Being Manipulated
Freedom Was Also A Market Maker Of The Issuer’s Bonds, Demonstrating Both A Motive And Opportunity To Manipulate Prices Higher
Worse yet, evidence suggests the price of Freedom’s bonds may have been manipulated, staving off reporting of potential catastrophic losses.The Kazakh Financial Regulator had concluded an investigation in January 2023, finding that 22 deals with Kazakhstan Sustainability Fund JSC’s bonds were transactions “committed for the purpose of manipulation”, according to reporting by Bloomberg.
The regulator has not yet specified which market participants engaged in the manipulation.
Freedom’s holdings in the Kazakh Sustainability Fund spiked in the period when bond prices were held artificially high, indicating that Freedom’s aggressive purchases may have played a role in driving the low yields and consequent high prices.Kazakhstan’s stock exchange website, KASE, shows that Freedom is the market maker in multiple securities issued by the issuer, Kazakhstan’s Sustainability Fund.
In Short, Freedom Seems To Be Relying On Short Term Expensive Financing To Hold A Massive, Illiquid, Money-Losing Position In Bonds That Have Likely Been Propped Up By Turlov’s Own Concentrated Purchases
Freedom’s bond position represents more than its entire shareholder equity balance, funded by short-term, expensive debt. This strikes us as a combination of the most dangerous elements of finance, posing an existential risk to Freedom and any of its commingled customer accounts.
Part V: Hallmarks of Market Manipulation In Freedom’s Own Stock
Freedom’s Stock Trades With Inexplicably Steady Volume And Price, Seemingly Impervious To (i) Market Events Like The March 2023 Financial Sector Stress And (ii) Company Specific Issues Such As Late Financials, Regulatory Sanctions And Auditor Resignations
Despite Freedom’s stock trading at elevated levels relative to its peers and its general risk profile, the company trades remarkably steadily on NASDAQ, with a low beta of about 1.12 and low volatility, seemingly regardless of market events.For example, the global financial sector suffered in March 2023 with the implosion of Silicon Valley Bank and the crisis at Credit Suisse. Regional banks and brokerages sold off in March and have yet to fully recover. Yet Freedom’s stock was seemingly impervious to wider market forces, reaching a 5+ year high relative to comparables, even while other brokerages fell along with the sector.
This is but one example of Freedom’s imperviousness to many normally market-moving events.
Over the Last 1.5 Years, Over 59% of Trading in Freedom’s Stock Has Been Driven by Two Tiny Brokerage Firms With Ties to Freedom
In our effort to understand Freedom’s irregular trading patterns, we noticed a glaring anomaly.Bloomberg collects data on trading volume that is self-reported by market participants or reported by exchanges like NASDAQ (referred to as “ECNs”).The data shows that two brokers, Lek Securities and Vision Financial Markets, collectively comprise only about 0.07% of trading volume on the NASDAQ over the past ~1.5 years (since January 2022) yet have comprised ~60% of trading volume in Freedom’s stock over the same period.The metrics alone are highly unusual—listed companies are generally traded somewhat in proportion to the general market for brokerages.The concentration of trading in 2 brokerages suggests that only a very small number of individuals comprise the majority of the buy and sell volume in Freedom’s shares, a hallmark sign of market manipulation.Further, Lek Securities and Vision Markets have deeply entrenched relationships with Freedom. Both brokers have existing clearing agreements with Freedom, likely giving them greater access and knowledge of Freedom’s operations.
- Lek is a clearing broker for Freedom, according to a 2016 SEC filing. Media also reported that Lek holds the IPO securities routed through a “mystery hedge fund” on behalf of Freedom customers.
- Vision Financial Markets is also a clearing broker for Freedom Finance Europe, according to an August 2022 announcement.
Suspicious Broker #1: Broker Lek Securities Accounted For Over 59% Trading Volume In Freedom In 2022 Despite Comprising A Miniscule 0.06% Of Trading Volume On The NASDAQ
Volume reported on Bloomberg shows that Lek Securities comprised over 59% of trading volume in Freedom stock in calendar year 2022, reaching as high as 70% in one month alone.
Such trading is highly unusual, even more so given Lek’s history of facilitating manipulative trading through central Asia, according to the SEC.
In 2017, The SEC Charged Lek With Manipulative Trading Alongside A Ukrainian Brokerage Firm And Barred Its Founder Samuel Lek From The Securities Industry
SEC Complaint: “Lek Securities Opened The Gate To Allow The Schemes Into The U.S. Markets Despite Repeated Warnings That Its Customer Was Manipulating The Market”
In March 2017 the SEC charged Lek Securities alongside a Ukrainian brokerage firm for manipulative trading that resulted in almost $30 million of illicit profits.
“As alleged in our complaint, Avalon openly marketed itself as a destination for manipulative trading, and Lek Securities opened the gate to allow the schemes into the U.S. markets despite repeated warnings that its customer was manipulating the market,”
The SEC obtained a final judgment against Lek for ~$3 million in 2019 and its founder Samuel Lek was permanently banned from the securities industry.The SEC case wasn’t Lek’s only regulatory infraction. According to its FINRA report, Lek was the subject of 42 regulatory disclosure events. As one example, in December 2019, the company’s FINRA brokercheck shows that Lek Securities had allowed customers to engage in ~$100 million of penny-stock trades (receiving $1.6 million in commissions) despite numerous red flags of fraud. [Pg. 42]
Suspicious Broker #2: Lek Securities Tapered Its Freedom Trading Volume Around Mid-2022 And Was Replaced By Another Small Broker, Vision Financial Markets
Vision Accounted For ~17% Of YTD 2023 Reported Trading Volume In Freedom Despite The Brokerage Comprising Only ~0.03% Of Nasdaq Volume
In June 2022, Freedom Finance Europe announced a new partnership with clearing broker Vision Financial Markets, seemingly moving away from its relationship with LEK.
ECN data shows that Vision became the key broker effecting Freedom trading volume around that time.
More specifically, in June 2022, Lek and Vision each comprised about 34% of the traded volume in Freedom. Lek Securities decreased significantly in July, accounting for only 5% of the trading volume, while Vision accounted for over 63%.
Lek Securities then abruptly disappeared from transacting in the company’s stock around August, while Vision stood at 56% of the volume.Current year to date volume shows that Vision Financial Markets accounted for ~17% of volume.
Despite Being A Small Brokerage Firm, Vision Has Accumulated A Long Rap Sheet Of 26 Regulatory Sanctions
The Firm Was Barred By The National Futures Association In 2014, But Relaunched Shortly Thereafter With The Exact Same Management
It Was Subsequently Charged With A Range Of Failures Including Lack of Effective Anti-Money Laundering Procedures And “Failure To Prevent And Detect Potentially Manipulative Trading Activity”, According To FINRA And Nasdaq Enforcement Actions
For a relatively small brokerage firm, Vision has accumulative an impressively long rap sheet of regulatory infractions.In 2014, the National Futures Association barred Vision from the futures markets over repeated violations including helping misappropriate customer funds and use of deceptive promotional materials. [Pgs. 2–3]
The same day the NFA announced it had barred Vision, the same management team initiated plans to relaunch.
While it might come as a surprise that a barred brokerage firm can simply relaunch instantly under the exact same management, it likely won’t come as a surprise that Vision went on to accumulate a rapid array of regulatory sanctions.The firm discloses 26 disclosable regulatory sanctions, according to its FINRA BrokerCheck report.Among those, in March 2019, the SEC fined Vision for failure to file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) for over hundreds of suspicious penny stock transactions.
In a 2020 civil suit, Vision was accused of a 5‑year fraudulent trading scheme to overcharge clients by $50 million from 2014 to 2019.In 2022, FINRA fined Vision for failure to design and execute an adequate anti-money laundering program. [Pg. 29] That same year, FINRA and NASDAQ fined Vision for “failure to prevent and detect potentially manipulative trading activity”. [Pg. 28]Amidst this slew of regulatory sanctions over failures relating to AML policies and manipulative trading, Freedom entered into its clearing agreement with Vision. Then, in what is unlikely to be a coincidence, Vision began effecting large quantities of trades in Freedom’s stock itself.
Former Executive At Vision: “The Takeaway—And I Talked About ‘Dodgy’—Is That Vision’s Operating In Areas That Other Firms Don’t Want To Operate In. And Maybe That Works Out Or Maybe At Some Point The Regulators Finally Say ‘We’ve Had Enough Of This’.”
The Former Executive Described Vision’s Business As A “Little Bit Dangerous” And Confirmed Its “Biggest Customer” Is Freedom
Per its website, one of Vision’s key businesses is clearing for “small and medium sized brokers/dealers.” In basic terms, that means it provides infrastructure for market participants to access the US securities market and settle trades.A former Vision Financial Markets executive we spoke to told us that clearing was one of Vision’s “key” businesses as well as routing and executing trades. The former executive stated that Vision’s “biggest customer is an offshore firm, but it’s a firm that’s got ties back to Russian ownership”.When asked if they meant Freedom, the former executive responded: “Yeah, Freedom…Freedom Financial”The former executive described in general terms the omnibus structure that Vision offers brokerage clients, like Freedom, which allow them to execute and clear trades. He stated clearly that Vision would not know who the end clients were.
“Yes. There’s only one account. That account could be one customer. It could be a thousand customers, it could be a million customers… So we don’t know the individual customers.”
The former Vision executive then went on to reflect on the lack of compliance at Vision and its inability to properly oversee the business:
“There was like one and a half people in compliance. You know, one [and a half] people, and I say half because somebody was doing two jobs… for that level of work and the business they’re doing, they […] didn’t have enough staff to do the job properly”
They felt Vision was willing to facilitate business like Freedom’s that other’s simply weren’t.
“The takeaway—and I talked about ‘dodgy’—is that Vision’s operating in areas that other firms don’t want to operate in. And maybe that works out or maybe at some point the regulators finally say ‘we’ve had enough of this’. So it’s a little bit dangerous, let’s put it that way.”
Freedom Reportedly Has Customers Purchase Its Own Stock To Participate In IPOs; A Bizarre Practice That Seems To Contravene FINRA Rules
Beyond questions around high volumes of suspicious trading by tiny brokerages close to Freedom, part of the stock support may also be explained by an unusual and seemingly illegal practice by Freedom.Freedom claims that a key competitive edge for its brokerage has been that its ability to secure IPO allocations from a secret hedge fund, as explained earlier.For clients who wish to participate in these IPOs, Freedom reportedly makes them purchase Freedom stock first, according to media reports. [1,2]FINRA Rule 5131 explicitly prohibits such quid pro quo allocations, stating:
“No member or person associated with a member may offer or threaten to withhold shares it allocates of a new issue as consideration or inducement for the receipt of compensation that is excessive in relation to the services provided by the member.” (Source: FINRA Rulebook)
Note that Freedom has a FINRA registered broker/dealer called “Freedom Capital Markets”, which would seemingly fall subject to those rules.Potential legality of the arrangement aside, the number of U.S. IPOs has fallen sharply since 2021, dropping from 1,035 in 2021 to 181 in 2022. Ergo, the benefit to those clients buying Freedom’s stock for IPO access has eroded, along with support it has provided to the stock.
Part VI: Regulatory Red Flags
Freedom’s filings claim that part of its business strategy is to “Excel in governance, transparency and continuous investments in regulatory compliance” and to “strive[s] to be a trusted participant in the regulatory framework in each jurisdiction where we operate”. [Pg. 8]Despite these claims, our research has found a litany of regulatory sanctions and red flags surrounding Freedom’s business. These issues go beyond the remarkable regulatory issues already noted earlier, such as Freedom’s sanctioning in Ukraine and the blacklisting of its key related party FFIN Belize in Kazakhstan.
Regulatory Red Flag #1: Four Freedom Entities In Kazakhstan Have Accrued 244 Regulatory Penalties, Resulting In 121 Sanctions, For Activities Including Potential Money Laundering And Terrorism Financing
Our search of Kazakhstan’s regulatory filings revealed that four Freedom entities have an extensive list of regulatory infractions.The four entities have a combined 244 total penalties, resulting in 121 sanctions or other administrative penalties, totaling 160,082,585 tenge (U.S. ~$353,000).While the fines are low, the nature of the infractions are revealing.Among other issues, Freedom Finance JSC was penalized for issues “concerning counteraction to legalization (laundering) of income earned illegally, and terrorism financing in the part of the documentary recording and provision of information on transactions subject to financial monitoring”.Freedom Finance JSC also paid fines for “inaccurate reporting on its activity”, and “the submission of unreliable, as well as incomplete reports”.Freedom Finance Insurance paid fines for, among other things, “false financial statements and other types of reporting”.Bank Freedom Finance KZ paid fines for “the ineffectiveness of the risk management and internal control system in the bank”.Finally, Freedom Finance Life was sanctioned for, among other things, “compliance with accounting and financial reporting standards”, and, similar to Freedom Finance JSC, violations related to laundering of proceeds from crime and terrorist financing.
Regulatory Red Flag #2: Freedom Has Failed To Disclose An Ongoing SEC Investigation Since At Least October 2021, According To Reporting By Disclosure Insight
Freedom has been the subject of an undisclosed SEC investigation since at least October 26, 2021, according to a June 2023 report by Disclosure Insight, an independent research firm with more than two decades of experience using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to determine if companies are under active investigation.
Disclosure Insight noted that the SEC investigation was confirmed as ongoing in December 2022, saying:
“It strains credibility to imagine [Freedom’s] management still thinks its SEC probe is not material enough to warrant disclosure.”
Regulatory Red Flag #3: Freedom Disclosed Two Back-to-Back Accounting Restatements And A Material Weakness In Its Internal Controls In 2023
One might think an ongoing SEC investigation and barring of Freedom’s audit partners would prompt the company to focus more closely on its internal controls. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however.Freedom has restated its financials 4 times on the back of cash flow accounting discrepancies, has recast its annual financials in 6 separate years and was late in filing on 9 occasions, per SEC filings. The company’s recently-filed 2023 10‑K was also months late. [1,2]Just this year alone, Freedom has announced two separate accounting restatements related to misclassification of cash flows and earnings. [1, 2]In addition, Freedom’s most recent annual report disclosed that its CEO and CFO have determined its disclosure controls and procedures were not effective:
“Based upon that evaluation, our principal executive officer and principal financial officer concluded that, as of March 31, 2023, due to the material weaknesses in our internal control over financial reporting described below, our disclosure controls and procedures were not effective.” [Pg. 164]
Regulatory Red Flag #4: In June 2023, The SEC Brought Major Charges Against Crypto Exchange Binance, Alleging An “Extensive Web Of Deception”
16 Days Later, Freedom’s Bank Signed A Deal With Binance, Announcing The Launch Of A Kazakh Digital Asset Platform
On June 5th, the SEC announced a major enforcement action against Binance, the largest crypto exchange in world. In its release, the SEC alleged that Binance and its founder brazenly operated an “extensive web of deception, conflicts of interest, lack of disclosure, and calculated evasion of the law.”
The SEC’s 136 page complaint includes damning evidence, showing, among other things, Binance’s CCO apparently admitting to operating an unlicensed securities exchange in the USA.
The complaint goes on to allege that Binance funds were commingled with outside entities tied to its founder, that an entity controlled by Binance’s founder wash traded on the platform, and that Binance misled investors. [Pg. 4] [Pg. 47] [Pg. 58]Media outlets speculated that the severity of the SEC charges could lead to follow-on criminal charges.When an enterprise is accused by the SEC of running an extensive web of deception and fraud, other companies regulated by the same authority might choose to avoid the enterprise at all costs.Not so with Freedom. On June 21st, 16 days after the SEC filed charges, the founder of Binance tweeted an announcement about the launch of a digital asset platform in Kazakhstan, specifically highlighting new “local banking support” from Freedom Finance Bank.
Conclusion: A Long List Of The Worst Elements of Finance
All told, Freedom has exhibited a startling array of red flags relating to virtually every category of financial malfeasance worthy of investigation.
 Mainly Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.
[Pg.94] Turlov was a citizen of Russia and St. Kitts until mid-2022, when he announced – just months into the Russia-Ukraine war – he was transitioning to Kazakhstan residency. St. Kitts was described as the world’s “most secretive offshore [tax] haven” in a 2018 Guardian report.
 Maxim was ranked outside the top 20 per Bloomberg’s League Tables in 2022. The majority of its deals were less than $15 million in size in 2022.
 We calculated Freedom’s commission and fee income specifically from FFIN Belize and divided by total revenue. Search Belize company and corporate affairs registry using search term “Freedom Securities Trading”
Igor Sechin, Rosneft and Russian Regional Development Bank were specifically sanctioned under the terms of U.S. executive orders originally issued in March 2014. Sechin was added to the sanctions list on April 28, 2014. Rosneft was hit with sanctions two-and-a-half months later on July 16, 2014. That July 2014 directive also included its subsidiary Russian Regional Development Bank. OFAC clarified that interpretation and specifically identified the Russian Regional Development Bank in later updates.
 The deal to purchase Okhabank from sanctioned Russian entities consummated in full in April 2016, when Freedom Holding, then a U.S.-listed public company, acquired the remaining 90.72% of shares and changed Okhabank’s name to Freedom Finance Bank.
Executive Order 13662 issued on March 20, 2014 states “Sec. 4. The prohibitions in section 1 of this order include but are not limited to: (a) the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order;
 That same month, Turlov renounced his Russian passport and took on citizenship of Kazakhstan – strategic move allowing him to continue to travel freely after the EU imposed a ban on flights from Russia in February 2022 and a number of EU nations had imposed entry bans on Russians by September 2022.
 Readers can replicate this search by navigating to https://www.president.gov.ua/documents/7262022–44481, searching for Appendix 1 (Додаток 1), then searching for “Турлов Тімур Русланович”(Timur Turlov Ruslanovich)
 In July 2023, the channel had over 8,200 members (a sizable number when compared to Freedom’s disclosed “active accounts” of 56,000 as of December 2022). [Pg. 72]. It is unclear whether this is an official or unofficial channel of Freedom.
 Freedom had made ad-hoc related party disclosures dating back to July 2018 relating to FFIN Belize. For example, it paid modest private placement fees to FFIN Brokerage and made loans to it, per a 2018 Schedule 144a disclosure.
 Several proxy statements (from 2018–2020) made passing reference to the entity, but suggested it was responsible only for small loans and fees.
[Pg. 18] Plus 500 has separate line items for customer deposits and segregated client funds, per its 2022 annual report.
[Pg. 127] Interactive Brokers has many different client line items and disclosures, including customer equity, customer margin assets, segregated cash in its 2022 annual report.
[Pgs. 60, 86] The notion that FFIN Belize is issuing retail clients with derivatives based on US IPO allocations is corroborated by a leading financial information website in Russia, banki.ru. Per Crunchbase, banki.ru is the no.1 bank information website, according to Russia ratings.
 Another former employee also made their suspicions clear that there might not be real IPO allocations: “But my suspicion is that there is no actual IPO. Like there is no actual […] stock allocation, but you have some kind of derivatives. I don’t think that it’s a really actual allocation[…]I think that this is some kind of derivatives”
 Net gain on trading securities is disclosed in the annual reports.
[Pg. 25, Pg. 29, Pg. 19, Pg. 95] By appointment is a specific trading term describing a security that has little liquidity on normal exchanges, requiring participants to search for liquidity on a block basis, usually with the help of an institutional broker.
 The full list of CUSIPs: BY6053478, BZ1147694, ZN2011270, ZN5458916, BZ4516036, ZL1827845, ZL4704645, ZJ8532765, BZ2785724, ZN2011288, ZN6509733, ZN7481940, BP2326828, BZ4185659, ZN7490800, BP2338849, BZ2786508, ZK0195766, ZJ8538242, ZN6514733, BP2335696, ZM5768696, BP2326786, ZN6519526, ZM5769991, BP2333519, BP2298167, BP2296336
 Per Bloomberg historical volume data as at 10 August 2023 According to Fitch, the Kazakh Sustainability Fund had total debt of KZT1,012.5 billion, translated to around U.S. $2.2 billion. This compares to Freedom’s disclosed holdings as of December of U.S. $835 million.
 Accurate yield pricing was not available for 6 bond issues. We used Bloomberg field: “YLD_YTM_MID” as at 10 August 2023
 The following bonds with maturities between 2025 and 2032 had between 12.07–13.01% mid yield to maturity: BP2298167, BP2296336, BP2335696, BP2333519, BP2326786, BP2338849, per Bloomberg. BP2338849 yielded 12.07% as at 10 August 2023
 It is not exactly clear if Freedom has classified the Kazakh Sustainability Fund as sovereign or corporate debt. It trades on KASE an individual issuer yet is backed by the government.
 ECN stands for Electronic Communication Network, meaning the exchange
 We used the function BAS (brokerage activity summary) which collates data from the Nasdaq Exchange.
 To replicate this search, navigate to this link and search for the following Freedom entities: “Bank Freedom Finance Kazakhstan, JSC”, “Freedom Finance, JSC”, “Insurance Company Freedom Finance Insurance, JSC”, “Life Insurance Company Freedom Finance Life, JSC”. A fifth entity, Investment Company Freedom Finance, LLC, turned up no regulatory infractions.
Original source: HINDENBURG RESEARCH