The economy is tanking, banks are scrambling for cover, the Fed is repeatedly cutting interest rates . . . and business is booming at pawn shop Crown City Loan & Jewelry in Old Pasadena.
Standing behind a display case brimming with hocked watches and jewelry, owner Doug Robinson can only smile when asked how things are going.
These aren't just any loans, of course. Robinson said the money he hands out -- no questions asked -- in return for people's collateral typically comes with an annual interest rate of about 60%.
He declined to say how much his loan balance was. But Robinson said it's risen about 40% in the last year and he expected to do even better this year.
"We've been on a continuous uphill run for a number of months," he said. "I don't see anything that will stop it."
For all the reassurance from the Bush administration and Federal Reserve that steps are being taken to keep the U.S. economy from going down the toilet, the harsh reality from the consumer's perspective is that times are tough and getting tougher.
Last week the Fed cut rates for a sixth time since September and assisted in JPMorgan Chase's bargain-basement purchase of stricken investment bank Bear Stearns. President Bush tried to put a brave face on an economic outlook that most prognosticators say will be increasingly chilly.
Hi, Mr. Recession!
"I understand there's short-term difficulty," Bush said. "But I want people to understand that in the long term we're going to be just fine."
I conveyed that sentiment to numerous people in and around Old Pasadena the other day, and none seemed convinced that fineness was just around the corner.
"They say they're going to turn things around and help people," said Pasadena resident Darryl Austin, 41, who works as a security guard after serving 12 years in the Marine Corps. "I'm still waiting. I feel like a stepchild in my own country."
Burbank resident Saul Powell, 45, said that no matter how hard he worked, he was having a hard time keeping his fiscal head above water because of rising gas and food costs.
"Prices just keep going up," he said. "Why did the government get so aggressive helping Wall Street but isn't doing anything for Main Street?"
There it is. Many consumers might think that a series of aggressive rate cuts would be helpful for things like mortgages and credit cards. But that's apparently wishful thinking.
After the latest cut of 0.75 of a percentage point was announced Tuesday, the average for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell after weeks of increases, but not as much as might have been expected, considering how much interest rates for 10-year Treasury notes -- a benchmark for mortgages -- have come down.
Analysts say the spread between mortgages and Treasuries is increasing because banks are reluctant to reopen the credit spigot that got them into so much trouble with the sub-prime mortgage mess.
The average rate for a 30-year fixed loan was 5.98% last week, according to a national survey by Bankrate.com. This compares with 6.19% a year ago.
Similarly, credit card rates are budging very little. Six months ago, the average piece of plastic was costing users about 14% in interest for revolving balances. Now it's about 13%.