An American Nightmare

Interest rates used to be a topic confined to the annual meeting of the gnomes of Zurich or to hushed discussions by corporate treasurers. Now everybody is talking and worrying about them. "I don't ever remember feeling so tense over the prime rate," says Ellen Greenfield, 27, a reporter for Women 's Wear Daily, the trade publication of the garment industry. "I follow it daily."

The prime rate, which despite its modest gyrations last week is still at a nosebleed high of 20%, is a convenient bench mark for interest rates. Most consumers, though,...

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