The United States and Canada were New Zealand's biggest foreign investors over the last three years, followed closely by Australia, China and Singapore, says KPMG in an analysis Overseas Investment Office (OIO) approvals.

The consultancy, in a report on foreign direct investment, also said Canterbury, Otago and Southland regions accounted for 49 per cent of all freehold land consented to under the Overseas Investment Act.

Ian Proudfoot, KPMG's global head of agribusiness, said this was likely to be the result of high volumes of sales among South Island dairy-conversion farms. Owners facing consecutive seasons of low returns were making decisions to sell heavily-indebted dairy farms, he said.

Overall, United States and Canada's foreign direct investment in New Zealand accounted for 17 per cent and 15 per cent respectively of gross consideration, followed by Australia with 12 per cent, China with 9 per cent and Singapore with 8 per cent.


Justin Ensor, deal advisory partner with KPMG, said New Zealand's relatively strong economic growth was a "good news story" when compared with the rest of the world.

"Globally, we're seeing a search for yield - this is partly due to the negative interest rate environments in some overseas markets," Ensor said. "New Zealand remains quite attractive from an offshore investor's point of view."

The research showed that there was a broad base of investment, from a spread of investor countries and across a diverse range of sectors.

While there had been $3.4 billion of agri-investment during the three years, none of the deals were large enough to make it to the top 10 of publicly-disclosed transactions. There was strong interest in the top three sectors of utilities, real estate and food.

Asia-based investors generally had a narrower focus; largely centred on agribusiness, food, and waste management sectors, he said.

"By contrast, traditional markets like the US and Australia tend to have a much broader base of investment, perhaps reflecting the maturity of their investment networks," Ensor said.

The total foreign direct investment for the three-year period was about $26.3b, with the 10 largest transactions accounting for around 33 per cent of that. The largest single transaction was the $1.3b sale of Goodman Fielder, which was jointly acquired by a Singapore-based company and a Hong Kong-listed investment firm.

Another large acquisition, $1.0b for St Lukes Group, saw Singapore become New Zealand's largest source of foreign direct investment in 2015.

Proudfoot said New Zealand must remain open and welcoming to "high-quality" foreign investors.

"The only way we're going to capture a fairer share of the value we create is by having good quality foreign partners in offshore markets, so that we can grow businesses of a global scale," he said.

Proudfoot said the optimal kind of foreign investment is where offshore investors are injecting capital into New Zealand-owned entities, as opposed to transactions between two offshore companies.

He used the example of the deal between Silver Fern Farms and Shanghai Maling, due to take effect in January 2017. The Chinese-based company is investing $261 million in a 50/50 partnership with Silver Ferns Farms with a view to building the brand.

By sector, dairy, forestry and milk processing were the leading areas for investment in the agribusiness sector.

"We expect that investment in milk processing will be subdued until dairy prices recover," the report said.

"However, this may be offset by speculative buying of farms in the event that forced sales occur in this sector," it said.

The United States was the biggest acquirer of land for the 2013-15 period, accounting for 40 per cent, followed by China (11 per cent ) and Hong Kong (7 per cent ). Forestry transactions were the most significant driver behind this statistic, KPMG said.

The report analysed approvals from the period January 2013 to December 2015.