A handful of bureaucrats stare into computer consoles in an eighth-floor government office. They are the new Masters of the Universe.

In an economic cosmos reordered by a recession and the collapse of many financial institutions, one of the country's busiest trading desks for once-prized junk bonds is located in a conference room of the Resolution Trust Corp., the agency created by Congress to clean up the savings and loan mess.

Nine days ago, with the government's seizure of Columbia Savings and Loan of Beverly Hills, Calif. -- the thrift industry's most avid investor in junk bonds -- the RTC became one the world's biggest holders of the high-risk, high-yield bonds.

The RTC now holds junk bonds with a face value of close to $7 billion. The size of that portfolio is rivaled only by two large insurance companies, Prudential Insurance Co. of America and First Executive Corp., each of which is believed to have just over $7 billion in junk bonds.

Junk bonds are risky, high-yielding securities that were used to finance corporate takeovers, growing companies, S&Ls and other ventures in the 1980s. In contrast to blue-chip bonds issued by major corporations with deep pockets, these speculative bonds were rated "below investment grade" by Wall Street rating agencies that stressed the limited cash available to meet interest payments.

Junk bonds the RTC has inherited include those of the Trump Taj Mahal casino, Federated Department Stores Inc. and RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp., from the megabuyout of RJR Nabisco Inc.

Some of the bonds pay interest regularly and others are virtually worthless, but few still trade at face value. To date, the RTC has sold $2.4 billion in junk bonds. For the new bond traders at the RTC, the challenge now, according to some analysts, is to try to get 60 cents on the dollar for the securities.

During the 1980s, S&Ls shed their stodgy home-loan image and started speculating on junk bonds and high-priced real estate, providing capital for growing companies in addition to a wave of costly corporate takeover efforts and development ventures that have gone bust. The RTC's success in selling its junk bonds, as well as its real estate, mortgages and other thrift holdings, will determine how much the thrift cleanup will ultimately cost taxpayers.

Force That Drives Market Success will not come easily. As is the case with its enormous real estate holdings, the RTC's junk bond portfolio is so large that it can be a force that drives the market. Selling too fast can drive down values, but with the market declining, it may prove costly to hold off selling.

"Everything we have is for sale, it's just a question of at what price," said Elizabeth Spector, head of the RTC's capital markets section.

And buyers of RTC real estate, who often have to submit reams of paperwork and wait months for the agency to make a decision, would be amazed at the pace at which the RTC can move when it comes to selling its securities.

RTC bond traders typically list bonds they want to sell on computer networks, along with a request for bids. Bids are worked up, sent in and a sale is transacted in the space of an hour or two, sometimes less.

Still, in the bond market, the agency is viewed as "an awkward giant," in the words of one analyst. It not only has to try to get the best price it can on a huge volume of bonds, it must be careful not to weaken the market further.

"Because of our size, we have the ability to make matters worse," Spector said. "We have to be careful not to crash the market," she said, adding that the RTC has been largely successful. Several weeks ago, she said, "We sold $125 million in one afternoon and nobody noticed it."

Spector said her bond sellers have a calendar of planned sales and watch the market every day. Competitive bids are solicited on most bonds, she said, with advice on what to sell and when coming from Salomon Brothers Asset Management Inc., a subsidiary of Salomon Brothers Inc., under a $50,000-a-month contract.

So far, several junk analysts said, the RTC has concentrated on selling its high-quality bonds. "In September, when the market was weak, they made some very nice sales," said one New York trader. "But we're not sure what their aim is on the lower quality stuff."

Some analysts believe the agency has been selling too slowly. "They have been overcautious," said Kenneth Thomas, a junk bond analyst at K.H. Thomas Associates in Miami. "We have nothing but a pessimistic outlook for junk bonds. ... The RTC's junk is most susceptible to a recession and increasing default rates."

But not everyone agrees.

"They should be doing a rigorous credit examination and only be selling the ones that are going to go lower," argued a West Coast trader.

Michael Price, mutual fund money manager at Mutual Shares Fund in Short Hills, N.J., was a bidder on Columbia's junk bonds, which the institution tried to sell before it was taken over by the government.

"Half of them you could sell as wallpaper," said Price. Another big chunk will require extensive analysis and legal work before its value is determined, he said.

One way the RTC hopes to unload its weakest bonds is to pool them with better assets.

The RTC plans to "securitize" some of its junk bonds -- bundle them together with other bonds, stocks and loans -- and issue $67 billion in marketable securities backed by the package, but that program has been put on hold until technical legal changes can be made indemnifying RTC officials from investor claims.

The junk bonds the RTC has inherited are particularly risky because S&Ls -- which plunged into risky junk bond investing in the early '80s -- were notoriously naive about what they were buying.

In fact, the junk bond market, pioneered by Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., was a major contributor to the collapse of the S&L industry, the government asserted in November, in a claim filed in Drexel's bankruptcy case. By getting thrifts to invest in the junk bond market, Drexel, the government said, was able to tap into a huge pool of federally insured funds.

Some of Drexel's bond traders who helped create the junk bond market are now at Salomon Brothers, which also bought Drexel's junk bond underwriting database. RTC officials say they are confident that the Salomon trading and advisory operations remain strictly separate.

"Drexel and its co-conspirators sought to create an illusion of value in junk bonds," the RTC and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. claimed in court papers. "In fact, the yield was often infinitesimal or nonexistent because the securities turned out to be worthless."

Junk analyst Thomas said some thrifts were more savvy than others. Columbia, he said, benefited from the close association of its former chairman, Thomas Speigel, with now-convicted Drexel junk bond king Michael Milken. Columbia's bonds will probably average about 50 cents on the dollar, he said, whereas those from Miami's failed giant thrift, CenTrust, will likely bring only about 30 cents.

"Columbia got the best and CenTrust got the worst," said Thomas. CenTrust collapsed under the weight of its junk bond debt and bad loans.

Unacceptable Offers Government regulators were criticized over their refusal to sanction a junk bond sale by Columbia last summer to an investment group that offered the unexpectedly high price of $3 billion for bonds once valued at more than $4 billion. But the thrift was going to finance 90 percent of the purchase, and regulators feared the taxpayers would ultimately get stuck.

A second round of bids just before the thrift was seized last month, this one with seller financing sanctioned by regulators, produced unacceptably low offers of around $2 billion.

"They weren't real deals, in that the government still carried the risk ... " said Price, an early round bidder. "If it was all cash, the bid would have been a billion {dollars} instead of two billion."

The RTC ought to take its losses now, said Price, instead of trying to "finance the hits it's taking today."