Here is a weekend wrapup of stories of interest over the past week or so that I was unable to comment on at the time in more detail.

Bid Rigging Conspiracy at JPMorgan

JPMorgan, Lehman, UBS Named in Bid-Rigging Conspiracy

March 26 (Bloomberg) — JPMorgan Chase & Co., Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and UBS AG were among more than a dozen Wall Street firms involved in a conspiracy to pay below-market interest rates to U.S. state and local governments on investments, according to documents filed in a U.S. Justice Department criminal antitrust case.

A government list of previously unidentified “co- conspirators” contains more than two dozen bankers at firms also including Bank of America Corp., Bear Stearns Cos., Societe Generale, two of General Electric Co.’s financial businesses and Salomon Smith Barney, the former unit of Citigroup Inc., according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on March 24.

The court records mark the first time these companies have been identified as co-conspirators. They provide the broadest look yet at alleged collusion in the $2.8 trillion municipal securities market that the government says delivered profits to Wall Street at taxpayers’ expense.

The only way to stop this kind of bullsweet is to imprison those guilty, while also holding those at the top accountable for those underneath them. Make no mistake about this. Corporate culture from the top down encourages these kind of ripoffs.

76-story Columbia Center Misses Mortgage Payment

Columbia Center misses mortgage payment

The owner of the Northwest’s tallest building, the 76-story Columbia Center, missed a mortgage payment this month, providing fresh evidence of the troubles facing downtown Seattle office landlords.

Boston-based Beacon Capital Partners failed to make a scheduled payment of $1.65 million on a $380 million loan it took out when it bought the tower three years ago, according to a recent report by Wells Fargo Bank, which administers the debt.

The loan faces “imminent default due to cash flow issues,”says a note in the report. A spokesman for Beacon, the Seattle area’s largest office landlord, declined comment.

Downtown’s overall vacancy rate is at or above 20 percent, according to brokerage reports. At the Columbia Center, however, almost 600,000 square feet — nearly 40 percent of the building — is listed as “available” on online commercial real-estate database

That includes space that is vacant now and space expected to be emptied in the next year or so, including 177,000 square feet leased by, which is moving to a new headquarters complex now under construction in South Lake Union.

Beacon paid $621 million of which $480 million was financed. The assessed valuation is now $380 million.

Home Buying Frenzy in Erin Mills Canada

Homes create buying frenzy

At first glance, it looks like a mini tent city. But the shivering occupants aren’t refugees from an earthquake or some other calamity, nor are they lovers of the outdoors jumping the gun on camping season. Instead, they’re braving the weather and the curious stares of passersby to be first in line to buy a townhouse in Erin Mills.

The bravest – some might say craziest – is Baz Munshi, who showed up at the Daniels FirstHome site, near Winston Churchill Blvd. and Eglinton Ave., more than a week ago.

By the time the 130 fully-built condo units finally go on sale Saturday morning, Munshi will have been in front of the line nearly two weeks.

This is reminiscent and nearly as silly as standing in line in Florida to by condos five years ago. How well did that turn out?

History Tax In Portland

Cash-strapped society explores history tax

Do Portlanders really care about their history? More to the point, are they willing to pay for it? We may soon find out.

The Oregon Historical Society – bruised by multiple hits to its funding and slashed services – is exploring creation of a “heritage taxing district” empowered to collect a modest amount of property taxes, with voter approval, in Multnomah County.

If the taxing district or alternative fundraising ideas don’t pan out, the 112-year-old nonprofit, which operates the Oregon History Museum and research library in downtown Portland, expects to exhaust its cash reserves by late next year or early 2012, says George Vogt, the society’s executive director.

If the society’s board of trustees doesn’t see a path to stable funding by late June, Vogt says, “they’re likely to put the place in a phased shutdown.”

A fixture in the downtown cultural district, the museum attracts 45,000 tourists and other visitors annually, including thousands of students learning about Oregon history. The society owns 85,000 artifacts, many stored in a Gresham vault, including Native American baskets, Oregon Trail mementos and other material.

In response to pleas from the Southern Oregon Historical Society, which also is experiencing money woes, the Legislature passed a 2007 law enabling the formation of heritage districts to levy property taxes. The district would be similar to special taxing districts for soil and water conservation or library service. In each district, voters would elect a board of directors and must approve any property taxes the district levied.

A tentative proposal is to charge 5 cents in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed property value, or $10 a year for owners of a house with a $200,000 tax assessment.

Here’s the simple solution. Raise fees to cover the cost. If no one is willing to pay, sell. I actually bet volunteer history buffs would step up with timely donations to keep the building running at minimal cost.

Staffed by volunteers, a simple entry fee of $2.50 should be more than sufficient, assuming the society can get 45,000 visitors. However a quick check shows admission is $11.00 for adults and $9.00 for students.

The Oregon Historical Society has a staff of 31. Good grief. The museum is only open 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It takes a staff of 31 for that?

2000 Congressional Staffers Make Six Figures

2,000 House staffers make six figures

Nearly 2,000 House of Representatives staffers pulled down six-figure salaries in 2009, including 43 staffers who earned the maximum $172,500 — or more than three times the median U.S. household income.

Starting salaries on Capitol Hill are still low — many entry-level congressional jobs pay less than $30,000 a year. And many of the most highly paid staffers could make several times the maximum by jumping to lobbying and consulting jobs in the private sector.

But the salary data, compiled for POLITICO by, show that it’s possible to make an enviable living in Congress, even without winning an election.

Ryan Ellis, tax policy director of Americans for Tax Reform, says that the sheer number of staffers who are earning the maximum amount of pay — or are creeping close — is troubling for taxpayers.

Trade Wars With France

France vows retaliation against US in air tanker dispute

France has vowed to retaliate against the United States for allegedly shutting Europe’s aviation giant EADS out of a $50bn (£33.4bn) defence contract, warning of potential damage to the Atlantic alliance.

“This is a serious affair,” said France’s Europe minister Pierre Lellouche. “I can assure you that there will be consequences.”

“You cannot expect Europeans to contribute to global defence if you deny their industries the right to work on both sides of the Atlantic,” he said, adding that French president Nicolas Sarkozy would take action “at the appropriate time”.

The escalating spat comes after EADS withdrew this week from a joint bid with Northrop Grumman to supply the Pentagon with A330 air refuelling tankers, alleging that the procurement terms had been rigged to favour Boeing.

Rainer Brüderle, Germany’s economy minister, has also expressed outrage, alleging that the tender “had clearly been designed to favour Boeing under political pressure.”

Joachim Pfeiffer, Bundestag spokesman for the Christian Democrats, said the Pentagon’s conduct was “scandalous”, a sentiment echoed by a string of politicians on Wednesday.

Foreigners Flock To Munis

Municipal Bond Yields Reach Four-Month High Amid Wave of Supply

Yields on top-rated tax-exempt municipal debt climbed to their highest level in four months as investors flocked to taxable Build America Bonds amid the biggest weekly issuance of state and local debt since Dec. 11.

While tax-exempt prices were crimped, California turned to overseas investors in selling $3.4 billion in taxable debt yesterday, including $2.5 billion of Build America Bonds. International investors put in orders for more than 35 percent of the state’s debt, Treasurer Bill Lockyer said in a statement.

“We have a lot of foreign investors looking at California debt as a place where other investors are scared off, perhaps irrationally,” said Guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC in Philadelphia. “You hear a lot about California’s woes here, but maybe you don’t over at South Korea investment funds or places like that.”

In every cycle, foreign buyers rush in at the top.

For more on Munis see Wealthy Unload Munis; Junk, Corporates, Equities, All Overpriced; Take Some Chips Off The Table

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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