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Modern cliometric studies use dummy variables to measure the effects of institutions. The dummy variable approach can be misleading, as illustrated by recent research on the impact of colonial rule on borrowing terms. We show how trying to measure a ‘colonial effect’ without an analysis of the financial consequences of political subjection can be misleading. The main effect of the British Empire was to remove the default risk. Establishing how this was done, and with what effects, should take us closer to a proper understanding of the effect of empire.