People seem to get confused by this so let's just update the Total Return for 2013 here and explain a few things. Below is a chart of our Free Total Return vs Price Return webpage with the same security below from a leading institutional platform. The numbers are the same. One of the key benefits of having an exchange is the data comes from the exchanges, not some proprietary source (which is unlike the bond 'market' -- where there is no exchange).
A few comments:
First, an index does not have shareholders. Indexes are uninvestable --- what you are investing in (be it an index mutual fund or an ETF) is a financial PRODUCT that tracks (or attempts to track) an index.
Since an index does not own any shares of the companies in the index, companies in the index do not owe the index any cash like a regular shareholder is entitled (dividends). This creates a difference in those securities that are investable (ETFs) and those securities that are not (indexes that aren't total return).
Now, you can buy options and futures based on an INDEX --- but those are derivatives and thereby do not need underlying securities. It should be pointed out that ETFs are not derivatives any more than a mutual fund is a derivative. In fact, most ETFs are registered under the very same 1940 Securities & Exchange Commision (SEC) act as mutual funds. The basic structure is the same --- though the mechanics are different.
Some people mistakenly think that since when you buy an ETF and you are therefore getting ETF shares, that represents a derivative. It most certainly does not. When you buy a piece of property, you get a deed (a legal contract). When you buy a stock, you get a stock certificate. When you buy a mutual fund you get mutual fund shares. These are not derivatives. The vital difference is that derivatives do not hold the underlying securities ---- ETFs DO hold the underlying securities, which makes them regular pooled investment funds.
Now, since ETFs hold various numbers of shares, they are paid cash when companies make those distribution payments (dividends) to shareholders. It is important that you account for these distributions as when you go to rank securities, the entire ranking process will be compromised unless you are using the same process across all securities in the list. In fact, one error in a list of securities can impact the entire rank order and actually affect the chosen securities to be included in a backtest, meaning you cannot have ANY errors.
Since ETFreplay covers nearly 1000 securities, we took great care in building our processes -- and importantly, how you cross-check data. Good thing for us is that modern databases (such as the most recently released SQL database our service provider runs on) were architected precisely to address the inherent problems in data management. (databases have very rigid rules relative to something like a spreadsheet, which was created for the masses).
As a sidenote, because it is frankly amazing ---- the use of Excel has been the source of two very high-profile finance-related errors in the past year --- the London Whale incident at JP Morgan --- as well as the influential Reinhart-Rogoff economic paper used to justify the adoption of Austerity. We maybe are less surprised that academics would makes such an error --- but the JP Morgan case is amazing because of the mere fact that they would ever run such massive amounts of money without a more architecturally secure product than Excel. Did nobody in the JP Morgan london office ever study the benefits of using a relational database management system (RDBMS)? Running a database enables many levels of cross-checks and reporting that is impossible in a spreadsheet. Caveat emptor.
See Also: Other Total Return Blog Posts