Behind Dow's plunge to six-year low: one big unknown

The Dow plunged 89.68 points Thursday to a six-year low because traders and investors appear to be nervous about unemployment, trade, consumer confidence.

But behind those worries lies one big, big worry: They want to know the size of US banks' so-called "toxic" assets.

Once they know how big that problem is, they can gauge whether the Obama administration is doing enough to fix it. Until they do, the markets almost certainly will remain shaky.

Unhappy with outlines

Markets plunged last week when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner provided a vague outline of the administration's plan to stabilize the financial system. They again fizzled when President Obama signed the huge $787 billion stimulus package last week. And they zigzagged to nowhere when he announced his $75 billion mortgage-relief program on Wednesday.

All those other efforts are key. But none of them matters much if there isn't a stable banking system to underpin the economy.

On Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.2 percent to 7,465.95, its lowest close since Oct. 9, 2002, when the widely watched index stood at 7,286.27 and the economy was recovering from the dot-com bust and post-9/11 recession.

Thorny politics

For the Obama administration, the big concern is political – and it too hinges on the toxic asset number. The political concern is who will pay to take those assets off bank balance sheets.

The banks? Taxpayers? Depends on how big the problem is. Ultimately, one of the toughest decisions the administration faces is how to balance the need for healthy banks without being seen to soak taxpayers for monumental failures that the taxpayers did not cause and that many angry voters do not believe they should be called upon to solve.

That is a number that the White House and Congress will have to perform on a very exposed, brightly lit political stage.

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