Prices for cash tax-exempt bonds closed slightly softer yesterday as a market searching for direction found none and kept its oars idle in the water.

"It's easier, but with nothing much going on," one municipal trader said yesterday.

"It's actually pretty quiet at this point," a second trader said, adding that the market tried to do a little better in the afternoon after getting hit yesterday morning.

"It got beaten up real bad [Wednesday and Thursday] on the bid side," he said. Yesterday, however, was spared Wednesday's deluge of bid lists which by some estimates totaled $500 million or better.

A third trader said those who bought bonds early this week hoping to flip them over later at higher prices are finding that task more difficult than expected.

While plenty of cash waits on the sidelines, buyers continue to be selective, he said.

Dollar bonds ended 1/4 point lower yesterday. High-grade issues ended slightly weaker with yields rising about two basis points overall, a municipal analyst said. Activity, was light to moderate.

In debt futures, the September municipal contract closed nearly an 1/8 point higher to 91 15/32s. Yesterday's September MOB spread was negative 396, compared to negative 388 on Wednesday.

Treasuries ended slightly better yesterday after a decline in commodities prices helped deliver some solace following Wednesday's sharp selloff. The 30-year government bond closed up more than 1/4 of a point to yield 7.35%

James Kochan, head of fixed income asset management at Robert W. Baird & Co., said the market continues to react to whatever cues surface on a given day, whether it's a Federal Reserve official's comments in Singapore or a shift commodities prices.

"The markets are essentially trendless here," Kochan said, "We don't have any fundamentals creating a positive or a negative bias so we continue to react to a different event every day."

The 30-year Treasury bond has been trading in a narrow range, with yields ranging from 71/4 to 71/2%. It is likely to remain there until the Federal Reserve gives some indication of its next move on monetary policy and the timing.

That steady range is actually good for municipals. The stability gives the street a chance to unload some stale inventory, Kochan said.

"Actually, the municipal market has had the best performance of any here," Kochan said.

One reason municipals have out-performed taxable bonds is that they don't have to depend on banks as buyers. For some reason, bank buying has dried up lately and taxables that depend on it, particularly mortgage-backed securities, have suffered. Mortgage-backed bonds have experienced their woes in spite of their scare supply, Kochan said.

In other news yesterday, dealer inventories continue to swell. Standard & Poor's Corp's Blue List jumped $159 million to $1.896 billion, the highest level since May 16 when the list was $1.899 billion. The Blue List has now risen for five straight days, growing by $483 million over that period.

The 30-day visible supply of municipal bonds for today totals $3.85 billion, down $506.3 million from yesterday. That comprises $1.240 billion of competitive bonds, off $16.4 million from yesterday, and $2.614 billion of negotiated bonds, down $489.9 million from yesterday.

Next week's negotiated calendar includes $419 million New York City Industrial Development Agency special facility revenue bonds through Smith Barney Inc. Santa Margarita, Calif. Water Control District next week plans to sell $200 million of water revenue bonds through a syndicate led by Paine Webber Inc.

In addition, Santa Clara Valley, Calif. Water District and Flood Control Authority is expected to offer $175 million of refunding certificates of participation, also through a Paine Webber team.

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