NEW YORK — Volatility returned to Wall Street Tuesday, sending stocks plunging as investors grew more uneasy about the economy and whether the Federal Reserve will take the steps needed to prevent credit market problems from spreading further. The Dow Jones industrials fell 280 points.

The stock market found little to assuage concerns in minutes from the Fed's last meeting, released during afternoon trading. The major indexes' losses steepened after investors parsed the minutes for signs of a possible cut in interest rates.

There had been some hope on the Street that Fed policymakers might have sent a stronger signal they were more willing to cut interest rates to help calm turbulent market conditions. But in the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's Aug. 7 meeting, while the central bank noted the turmoil in the markets and said, "to the extent such a development could have an adverse effect on growth prospects, might require a policy response," it didn't discuss a cut in the benchmark federal funds rate that Wall Street has wanted.

"Investors are getting whipped side-to-side because their expectations, which are changing almost on a daily basis, aren't being met," said Chris Johnson, chief investment strategist at Johnson Research Group. "We've gone from the roof is on fire to the Fed is riding in on a white horse, and what we're seeing now is a reality check."

Stocks were down the entire session on further worries about the economy. The Conference Board's report that consumer confidence sagged in August amid volatile financial markets and ongoing housing problems added to the downbeat mood on the Street. Keeping alive credit worries, a Standard & Poor's housing index showed that U.S. home prices in the second quarter posted the sharpest decline since 1987.

The Dow fell 280.28, or 2.10 percent, to 13,041.85, its biggest drop since Aug. 9. Stocks rose in fairly subdued trading last week, but began to pullback on Monday on sluggish economic data.

Broader stock indicators were also lower. The Standard & Poor's 500 index was down 34.43, or 2.35 percent, at 1,432.36, and the Nasdaq composite index shed 60.61, or 2.37 percent, to 2,500.64.

"This is backward looking right now, the main thing you have to take out of this is the Fed continues to be worried about inflation and economic growth," said Ryan Larson, senior trader with Voyageur Asset Management. "They have already assured they stand ready to do something. But, the market was looking for more of a nod or a mention toward the credit problems — and I don't think they got it."

Further, investors might also be positioning themselves ahead of a speech by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Friday in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Investors are not only looking for further details about a possible rate cut, but any impression Bernanke has about his recent campaign of injecting liquidity into the markets.