How Wall Street's problems are hitting home

Financial vibrations from Wall Street's collapsing giants are rippling down to Charlotte in various and human ways: Workers are putting off retirement as they watch investments dwindle. Consumer credit is being squeezed at retail stores and gold and silver wholesalers are seeing a boon but can't sell their own high-end jewelry. Here are a few of their stories:

Mildred Michael, 63, checks her family finances online every morning – while she and husband, John, 65, laugh to keep from crying.

His retirement fund from 30 years as a welder lost $6,000 on a recent day as the stock market spiraled.

The Michaels, who live near Greensboro but were in town to sell crafts at Festival in the Park, don't plan any changes in their investments.

“If you took your money out now with the market down,” John Michael said, “you'd be giving it away.”

So they watch as the college fund they set up for their 3-year-old granddaughter loses money. And they try to focus on the number of years it has to rebound before she needs it.

Bryan Kennedy, chief executive of Charlotte-based Park Sterling Bank, said big banks are so focused on Wall Street problems they've let service slide for smaller business clients. So small businesses are defecting to smaller community banks. “It's created a lot of opportunity to pick up customers – that's a good thing. But the challenge has been raising enough capital… to support them.”

Small banks loan a fraction of held deposits from their customers and borrow money from the Federal Home Loan Bank, an amount capped at a certain percentage of a bank's loan portfolio, Kennedy said. The FHLB loans money for home mortgages, small business loans and agricultural uses.

At Queen City Jewelers of Charlotte, sales of gold and silver are up – but only in reverse selling from customer to owner. Owner Dan Miller, who has been in his uptown location for 10 years, said the amount he's purchased from customers has increased rapidly the past two weeks as Wall Street has taken major hits.

“Whatever happens to the banks, I feel immediately,” he said. “This is an unprecedented situation. Most of the people who went through this in 1929 are dead.”

Gold, which closed Sept. 11 around $745 an ounce, closed Thursday just under $900 an ounce as spooked investors looked for shelter. Miller said sales of high-end jewelry are “way down,” at Miller's store in The Latta Arcade on South Tryon Street across from Wachovia headquarters.

Durell Hughes, 46, said it's too soon to predict the effect of today's economy on his small janitorial business.

But he is more worried about high business taxes and the cost of employee health insurance than he is about the effect of the stock market on his 401(k).

“Small businesses are really suffering,” said Hughes, who lives in Charlotte. “When are they going to offer multi-million dollars to bail us out? We are the backbone of the American economy – not Merrill Lynch or Bear Stearns.”

As the economy gets worse, Ron Lefler's job gets busier.

Lefler, 61, is a physician's assistant in the emergency room at Salisbury's Rowan Regional Medical Center – where patients without health insurance increasingly show up with everything from rashes to requests for birth control.

“They know they don't need to come up with a co-pay to be seen in the emergency room,” he said.

But while he likes his job security, Lefler wishes his 401(k) were doing better so he could retire next year like he'd planned. In the meantime, he and his wife, Lou, who live in Polkton, try to drive less and vacation only where they have relatives to stay with.