Corporate bonds got a dose of the summer doldrums yesterday as one of this year's hottest markets slowed to a crawl.

Inertia helped most investment-grade and junk issues withstand minor losses in the government market, leaving prices and spreads virtually unchanged.

"Half our desk is still on vacation," one New York dealer lamented." The market is just dead."

Syndicate desks, too, remained on holiday, as corporate borrowers shunned the sleepy market. Underwriters said few--if any--issuers will tap the market this week. Most corporations will choose not to vie with Uncle Sam for investors' favor tomorrow, when the Treasury auctions seven-year notes, bankers said.

In June, corporates benefited from their tendency to lag governments. The sector put in a negative 0.65% return on principal last month, better than Treasuries' negative 0.75%, according to Salomon Brothers Inc. But corporates' total return inched into the black for the month, with a positive 0.10%, compared with Treasuries' negative 0.07% total return.

Still, the yesterday's torpor sharply contrasted the corporate market's brisk action in the first half.

Nearly $23 billion of corporate bonds changed hands every day in May, up from $22.3 billion in April, the Securities Industry Association reported yesterday. That daily average volume was second only to February's $23.1 billion record.

Through May, trading averaged a record $21.7 billion a day, up 38% from the previous peak of $15.7 billion set for all of 1990, according to Grace Toto, an SIA research associate.

Institutional investors, meanwhile, were hungry for corporates, the SIA said.

Institutions' net purchases of corporate bonds in May surged 58%, to an average of $2.6 billion a day, from $1.6 billion in April. Through May, institutional investors bought an average $1.7 billion of corporates each day, nearly twice the previous record of $859.7 million set for all of 1986.

Those purchases coincided with total issuance of about $182 million, compared with just $291 billion for all of 1990.

Jeffrey M. Schaefer, senior vice president of the trade association, characterized institutions' appetite for corporates as "phenomenal," adding that large buyers are likely to maintain their strong demand in coming weeks.

In ratings action, Moody's Investors Service Inc. said it may downgrade Boise Cascade Corp.'s Baal senior debt and Baa2 convertible subordinated ratings.

A downgrade, which would affect $1.4 billion of securities, would put the Idaho-based integrated wood products and paper concern perilously closed to junk status.

The agency said the review reflects concern that Boise Cascade's anemic cash flow may be insufficient to reduce the company's debt, despite plans to sell a number of assets.

"Debt and preferred stock exceeded 60% of capitalization at yearend 1990," Moody's said. "The review will focus on the amount of cash to be generated, both through asset sales and internally, relative to spending needed to remain cost effective in an increasingly competititve paper industry.

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