The secondary tax-exempt market showed some signs of life yesterday and posted modest price gains in moderate trading.

The primary market, however, continued to get most of the play, with the $199 million balance from Tuesday's $1.2 billion California sale closing out of the account and investors shopping for bonds still available in this week's $642 million Washington issue.

W. Peck Ferrin, vice president and manager in the municipal underwriting and trading group at Bank of America, senior manager for the California account, said yesterday that the orders continued to pour in for the bonds. Although there was some dealer stocking, "most of the issue is in the hands of permanent investors," he added.

"The majority of the bonds were placed with retail buyers," Mr. Ferrin said, but noted that there was "also good institutional interest.

Reoffering yields on the California bonds ran from 4.50% in 1992 to 6.10% in 2001, 6.45% in 2006, and 6.60% in 2011. The bonds are rated triple-A by Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's Corp., and Fitch Investors Service.

General obligation bond traders also reported good follow-through sales for the big Washington issue, and although the bonds are still governed by syndicate price restrictions, price markups of as much of 1/2 point are inevitable, they said.

The Washington issue was scaled from 4.70% in 1992 to 6.25% in 2001, 6.70% in 2006, and 6.80% in 2012. They are rated double-A by Moody's and Fitch and the Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. underwriting account expects a double-A rating from Standard & Poor's.

In yesterday's new-issue activity, a syndicate headed by Dillon, Read & Co. began marketing $149.5 million Sisters of Charity Health Care System revenue bonds being issued by cities, counties, and authorities in New Mexico, Colorado, Ohio and Nebraska.

At the preliminary pricing, serial yields ranged from 4.70% or 4.75% in 1992 to 6.40% in 2002. Term bonds maturing in 2008 were being offered at 98.256 as 6 5/8s to yield 6.80%. Term bonds in 2013 were tentatively priced at 90.457 as 6s to yield 6.85%. And term bonds in 2021 were tentatively priced at 98.724 as 6 3/4s to yield 6.85%.

There were other term maturities that were not formally reoffered.

The health care bonds are backed by MBIA Corp. and are rated triple-A by Standard & Poor's and Moody's.

In the short-term market, Vermont sold $80 million general obligation notes at competitive bidding, awarding $60 million to Goldman, Sachs & Co. and $20 million to First National Bank of Boston.

Goldman, Sachs & Co. used a 5 1/4% interest rate and a premium that produced an average rate of 4.973%. First National Bank of Boston designated a 5% coupon and a premium that produced a 4.959% average rate.

Goldman Sachs reoffered the notes at 4.75%. There was no reoffering for the First National Bank of Boston notes.

The notes are dated Aug. 22, 1991, and will mature on June 25, 1992. They are rated MIG-2 by Moody's, SP1-plus by Standard & Poor's, and F1-plus by Fitch.

In secondary dollar bond trading, prices were up 1/4 point on average, but New York issues did better and were up as much as 1/2, traders said.

New Jersey Turnpike Authority 7.20s, due 2018, were quoted late in the day at 103 1/8-1/2 to yield 6.59% to the par call in 1999 and 6.60% to the premium call in 1993. Florida State Board of Education 7 1/4s of 2023 moved up to 103 5/8-3/4 to yield 6.80% to the 2004 par call, while a more recent issue of 6 3/4s of 2021 reached 98 3/4-7/8, where they returned 6.84%.

In the New York market, the New York LGAC 7s of 2016 closed at 98 1/2-3/4 to yield 7.11% and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority 6s of 2019 were at 90 1/4-3/8 to yield 6.77%.

In other dollar bond activity, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority 7s of 2021 were quoted near the close at 98 3/4-99 to yield 7.08% and close at 98 3/4-99 to yield 7.08% and Colorado River Authority insured 6 5/8s at 96 5/8-3/4 to yield 6.88%.

Long general obligation serial bond prices were up as much as 3/8 yesterday. "We're back to coupon fever and loving discounts," one trader volunterred.

Gains in the municipal market significantly trailed those in the government sector where bond prices were up more than a point on the day.

The same was true in the debt futures market where the September municipal contract gained only 14/32, while the government bond was up a full point. The MOB settled at negative 134.

Note prices posted gains of close to five basis points in a late afternoon flurry.

California notes were quoted near the close at 4.67% bid, 4.65% offered with Los Angeles County notes at 4.69% bid, 4.68% offered.

The market for New Jersey notes was at 4.70% bid, 4.65% offered with New York State tax and revenue anticipation notes at 5.08% bid, 5.05% offered. There were about $60 million New York City tax anticipation notes in for the bid late in the day with offerings at the time around 4.65%.

N.J. Turnpike Offering

First Boston Corp., as senior manager, reported yesterday that it expects to price sometime next week $422.7 million New Jersey Turnpike Authority revenue refunding bonds. The offering is expected to be comprised of serial bonds, due 1992-2003, and two term maturities in 2008 and 2014.

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