Freedom Holding: After ‘Borat,’ The Silliest Kazakh Import Of The Century

If one word could describe the U.S. stock market of 2020, it would be “improbable.” The S&P 500, for example, has risen about 14.14 percent this year despite a pandemic that is deadly to both people and corporate profits. Yet even after witnessing this year’s string of unprecedented developments, investors might be shocked to learn what lies behind the recent muscular share price growth of Freedom Holding Corp. This Las Vegas–incorporated bank and securities brokerage has its principal office in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and a major presence in other cities of the former Soviet Union. 

In Freedom Holding’s most recent quarterly filing of Nov. 19, management attributed the company’s earnings success to customers undertaking a higher volume of trades as a result of “the unique market characteristics surrounding the COVID 19 pandemic.” In other words, quarantined or marooned investors are day trading to pass the time as disease spreads across the world. And thus Freedom Holding’s astronomical revenue growth has seemingly made it the fastest-growing financial services company on Earth.

So why aren’t the big brokerage operations of the U.S. and Western Europe replicating this model? A clue as to why they are not can be found in Freedom Holding’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The Foundation for Financial Journalism has found that Freedom Holding serves up gaudy growth figures with few disclosures or incongruous explanations at best — and accompanies them with an operations structure akin to that of a penny stock company.

Despite the fact that Freedom Holding is incorporated in the States and its shares are traded on Nasdaq, nothing about its actual U.S. presence should give American investors any confidence. LinkedIn lists only one U.S.-based Freedom Holdings employee. And the company has situated its U.S. headquarters inside a Regus coworking space. The company’s auditor, Salt Lake City–based WSRP LLC, has just 16 partners and only four publicly traded clients, according to a Public Company Accounting Oversight Board filing. Similarly Freedom Holding’s outside legal adviser, the law firm Poulton & Yordan, has merely two licensed attorneys and no website. All the while, most of the company’s operations — taking place in its trading and retail brokerage division, Freedom Finance — are carried out thousands of miles away in numerous jurisdictions, mostly in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, but also Europe, and quite actively in Cyprus. 

Although Freedom Holding’s SEC filings do not reveal how it is making its great fortune, its subsidiaries’ audited financial statements do. These filings reveal that the company’s Cyprus unit is staggeringly profitable, having earned more than $33 million last year following a $30,000 loss in 2017. 

Additionally, Freedom Holding has a highly unusual relationship with a company based in Belize that’s owned by Timur Turlov, Freedom Holding’s founder and CEO. While little is disclosed about it in Freedom Holding’s SEC filings, this Belize entity, FFIN Brokerage Services, appears to have access to the funds of Freedom Holding’s clients for as long as 93 days, a major deviation from typical brokerage industry practices across the globe. 

Reporting earnings that might be too good to be true

Analysts reading Freedom Holding’s most recent quarterly filing will be hard pressed to explain its earnings growth. In the first six months of its financial year that ends on March 30, the company had its net income rise to $47.83 million, nearly triple what it reported for the same period a year ago — and more than double the $22.1 million it earned in all of fiscal 2019.

How unique is Freedom Holding’s almost 38 percent net profit margin? Goldman Sachs — long Wall Street’s most profitable company — managed only a 25.3 percent net profit margin in 2006, during the manic run-up to the global financial crisis.

Freedom Holding’s filings suggest that its managers have apparently solved an enduring mystery of the business world: figuring out how to turbocharge revenue growth without triggering a concurrent spike in expenses or risk.

Growing a business typically requires managers to invest in new hires, technology or plant improvements in the hopes that each $1 spent will net $1.50 before taxes in three to four years. But Freedom Holding’s income statements imply that its management can spend 75 cents to realize a return of $3 in just a few months, all without having to sell stock or take on a mountain of debt.

The universe of companies that claim to do this is limited to Freedom Holding. Even profitability and capital efficiency superstars like Google and Berkshire Hathaway cannot approach that performance.

Another factor that sets Freedom Holding apart is its apparent efficiency and productivity. A business in an aggressive expansion mode typically registers a depressed revenue-per-employee figure as it assumes front-loaded costs (adding head count, paying for technology updates) that do not immediately result in new revenue.

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In the weeks prior to publication of this article, the Foundation for Financial Journalism sought comments from Freedom Holding. After  more

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