You can get historical returns for selected stock indexes

Q: Is there a website that will give me the average return of large U.S. stocks between a certain time period, such as 1980 and 2007?

A: Getting the day's stock quotes is pretty simple. Just about every financial website, including this one, can give you today's prices on all the major stock market indexes and stocks.

But, going back in time and digging out historical data is trickier. And getting what you want, compounded average annual returns, is the trickiest.

If you're comfortable with Microsoft Excel, you can calculate average annual returns by downloading data from websites such as MSN Money. This previous Ask Matt column shows you how to download historical data for a stock and calculate the average annual return:

The same method works for stock market indexes, such as the Standard & Poor's 500 and Russell 1000, which track large U.S. stocks.

If that seems like a lot of work, there are other options. Russell Investments, a leading provider of market indexes, provides a handy and free index returns calculator. From www.russell.com click on the "Index returns calculator" link on the right-hand side of the page just below where it says Indexes. Make sure your browser is set to allow pop-ups, then click the Start button.

First, check the index you're interested in. For U.S. large company stocks, click the "Russell 1000 Index" option under Large-Cap Indexes. Click the Next button at the bottom of the page. To choose a custom return date, click on "Special date range returns, plus optional standard returns" and click the "next" button. Change the dates. This site will go back to 1994. Hit "Get returns'" to see annualized returns for your selected date range.

If you want to go back even further, try the IFA Risk and Return Calculator at IFA.com. From IFA.com, click on the "IFA Risk Return Calculator" link, which is the No. 11 option on the left-hand side of the page. Next, in step one, select the IFA Index option and make sure "LC-IFA U.S. Large Company Index" is selected. In item two, change the start date to January 1, 1980 and the end date Dec. 31, 2007. Scroll down a bit and click the "Calculate" button. Shortly, the answer will appear in the yellow part of the page: 12.82%.

Matt Krantz is a financial markets reporter at USA TODAY and author of Investing Online for Dummies. He answers a different reader question every weekday in his Ask Matt column at money.usatoday.com. To submit a question, e-mail Matt at mkrantz@usatoday.com. Click here to see previous Ask Matt columns.

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