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Summary Using new statistics, this article analyses financial development in Southeast Asia over the seven decades 1870-1939. The region experienced substantial, and in some instances rapid, vent-for-surplus economic growth based on a narrow range of primary commodities. But in 1939 all Southeast Asian countries still had relatively undeveloped financial infrastructures dominated by metropolitan interests, considerably reliant on informal finance, and geared towards primary commodity exports. The article suggests that a lack of opportunities and a variety of country-specific considerations were more important explanations than weak financial development for an absence of greater industrialization and agricultural modernization in Southeast Asia.