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USA Today has taken an in-depth look at the biggest publicly traded restaurant chains, and what reporter Matt Krantz found wasn’t pretty: Investors in the top 26 restaurant companies are taking a bath. Their stocks have lost nearly 50 percent of their value from their highest point in the past 52 weeks.

Writes Krantz:

That’s been an even harsher pullback than the 46.5% decline of the Standard & Poor’s 500 from its 52-week high.

There’s even deeper pain suffered by individual restaurants and their investors. Ruth’s Hospitality (RUTH), operator of the Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses; DineEquity (DIN), which runs IHOP and Appleby’s; and Ruby Tuesday (RT) have all seen their stocks fall nearly 90%.

Meanwhile, 20 members of the retail and restaurants industry classification are dangerously close to having trouble keeping up with the interest payments on their corporate debt, S&P says. That makes it the third-most-pressured industry group among the 21 that S&P considers the weakest. Meanwhile, nine of the top 26 publicly traded companies have posted losses in their most recent quarters.

Even more troubling, experts don’t expect a turnaround for a year or two, given the twin problems of low consumer confidence and high company debt loads.

Image by Flickr user Robert Banh