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How Bad Is It? Pawn Shops, Payday Lenders Are Hot

BERNARD CONDON

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ As the jobless rate inches up and the economic recovery sputters, investors looking for a few good stocks may want to follow the money â¿¿ or rather the TV, the beloved Fender guitar, the baubles from grandma, the wedding ring.

Profits at pawn shop operator Ezcorp Inc. have jumped by an average 46 percent annually for five years. The stock has doubled from a year ago, to about $38. And the Wall Street pros who analyze the company think it will go higher yet. All seven of them are telling investors to buy the Austin, Texas, company.

Is the economy still just in a soft patch? A hard patch? Will the market rise or drop? Even experts are just guessing. In investing, it's often better to focus on what you can safely predict, even if that safety is found in companies that thrive on hard times. One good bet: The jobless aren't likely to find work anytime soon. And companies profiting from their bad fortune will continue to do so.

Among them:

â¿¿ Stock in payday lender Advance America Cash Advance Centers (AEA) has doubled from a year ago, to just under $8. Rival Cash America International Inc. (CSH) is up 64 percent, to $58. Such firms typically provide high interest loans â¿¿ due on payday â¿¿ to people who can't borrow from traditional lenders.

â¿¿ Profits at Encore Capital Group, a debt collector that targets people with unpaid credit cards bills and other debts, rose nearly 50 percent last year. Encore has faced class action suits in several states, including California, over its collection practices. The Minnesota attorney general filed a suit in March. No matter. The stock (ECPG) is up 59 percent from a year ago, to more than $30.

â¿¿ Stock in Rent-A-Center (RCII), which leases televisions, couches, computers and more, is up 57 percent from a year ago to nearly $32. Nine of the 11 analysts covering the company say it will rise further and that investors should buy it.

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