Experts say Shein's U.S. IPO is all but dead

The Shein logo can be seen on a smartphone, while the Chinese online retailer’s website is open on a laptop. 

Monika Skolimowska | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

China-founded e-commerce company Shein’s hopes of going public in the United States are growing slimmer by the day, according to experts, as rising tensions between Beijing and the U.S. roil business and trade.

The company, last valued at $66 billion, confidentially filed to go public in the U.S. in November. Since then, it has faced resistance as it tries to join the American retail sphere, including through numerous rejected attempts to become a member of the National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade association, CNBC previously reported.

The e-commerce upstart filed to go public while becoming a household name in the U.S. by offering low prices and a facility to offer new styles quickly. The company is poised to take major market share from U.S. retailers, particularly Gap, TJX Companies and Macy’s, according to UBS data from last year, and continues to challenge Target, Walmart and Amazon.

But as political resistance to its U.S. IPO mounts, Shein is seemingly shifting gears, as it reportedly prepares to confidentially file for a £50 billion offering in London in the coming weeks. The company likely would have preferred to list in the U.S., because the offering could bring a higher valuation than in the U.K., said Angelo Bochanis, an IPO analyst at Renaissance Capital, which provides pre-IPO research and IPO-focused ETFs. 

But its path hasn’t been easy, as federal and state officials call on the Securities and Exchange Commission to scrutinize or even block the initial public offering in the U.S.

“Scrutinizing companies with high-profiles and roots in China is very politically in-vogue right now in the United States,” Bochanis said.

A London IPO could, in theory, be easier than a U.S. offering, according to Bochanis. With the British parliament dissolved and the London Stock Exchange “desperate for big wins” as it suffers an IPO drought, Shein could circumvent some of the hurdles that it might have otherwise faced, he said.

If Shein’s London IPO succeeds, it is unlikely to keep pursuing a U.S. offering, said University of Florida finance professor Jay Ritter, who studies IPOs.

Not all China-linked companies are getting tangled in the webs of rising political tensions. Chinese electric vehicle company Zeekr went public in the U.S. last month. It became one of the first prominent Chinese companies to do so in the U.S. even as the Biden administration has increasingly cracked down on Chinese-made electric vehicles.

China ties and data privacy

Shein is “one of the few” China-tied companies that have gained deep brand awareness with U.S. consumers, Bochanis said.

The size of the potential offering, and the long, high-profile process accompanying it, have helped to make Shein an attractive target for politicians from both parties who want to look tough on Beijing-linked companies.

Shein was founded in China and has since moved its headquarters to Singapore. But a good chunk of the company’s supply chain is still based in the country.

In December, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to Shein seeking information about the company’s user data collection and its relationship to the Chinese government, calling a potential link to Beijing a “serious risk for e-commerce, consumer safety and people’s data privacy and security.”

The panel sent a similar letter to TikTok, the popular social media platform owned by China-based parent ByteDance.

The Chinese Communist Party can by law request any Chinese-owned company to share information on its customers, according to George Washington University professor Susan Ariel Aaronson. While Shein is headquartered offshore, its manufacturing ties in China and reports that it sought Beijing’s permission to go public in the U.S. raised concerns among U.S. officials about what data it could share with the Chinese government.

That relationship helped to spark a proposed U.S. ban on TikTok. Legislation that Congress passed last month aims to force the platform to sell its U.S. assets by Jan. 19 or cease all activity in the country.

ByteDance and several creators on the platform have filed lawsuits to block the bill.

While Shein does not have access to the magnitude of data that a social media giant like TikTok has, the proposed ban has raised more doubts about a U.S. IPO for the company.

“[Congress] just showed us that if a particular Chinese-owned company is perceived to be posing a threat, they can unify and pass a law, and that’s much stronger than an executive order or presidential order,” said Antonia Tzinova, a national security attorney at Holland & Knight.

Shein shipping concerns

The political scrutiny beyond data privacy may prove more difficult for Shein to overcome.

The retailer has long been criticized for its alleged use of forced labor in its supply chain and poor working conditions for its employees.

In 2021, the United States passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which prohibits companies that manufacture goods in the Xinjiang region of China notorious for its Uyghur detention camps from selling in the U.S. Although U.S. government agencies claim Shein’s supply chain has links to the Xinjiang region, the company doesn’t manufacture its own goods and instead uses China-based micro-manufacturers that make materials tougher to track.

Shein has repeatedly denied the forced-labor allegations, saying it implements a system to support compliance with the U.S. law within the company.

The company has also come under fire for its use of U.S. customs law loopholes.

Because the company doesn’t import its products in bulk to sell from a U.S. warehouse and instead ships on an order-by-order basis, it’s exempt from some of the heaviest U.S. import taxes. Rivals have criticized this practice as giving Shein an unfair competitive advantage.

— CNBC’s Gabrielle Fonrouge and Reuters contributed to this report.

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