Hard times have made believers of savings and loan executives in Virginia.

In the halcyon days of the industry, and as recently as early this year, in fact, the Virginia Savings and Loan League railed against interstate mergers or branching in metropolitan Washington.

Conversely, District S&Ls, most of them with bigger assets and stronger net-worth positions, have decried federal regulations that limited their growth to the narrow confines of the city.

Their competitors in the suburbs, meanwhile, were free to open branches anywhere in their respective states, giving those competitors an unfair advantage in the marketplace, S&L executives in the District contended.

But then the industry plummeted to its worst financial crisis in more than four decades. And federal regulators, trying to prevent wholesale failures while husbanding limited funds for assistance, began approving some interstate mergers.

That set the stage for a radical change in the local market and it was only a question of time before an interstate merger was approved in metropolitan Washington.

"There's no question that if interstate mergers are permitted and an aggressive institution is the survivor, it's going to have an impact," the president of the Virginia league warned six months ago.

"Undoubtedly," declared Mark Saurs, "it would be a signal to every association in Washington, D.C., and every institution in the surrounding SMSA standard metropolitan statistical area . They would race to the suburbs with mergers in their hands."

In a typically aggressive move, the District's Perpetual American Federal, sensing that the timing was right, had already raced ahead of its competitors and was awaiting approval of a merger with McLean's Washington-Lee Federal as Saurs worried about the inevitable.

When the Federal Home Loan Bank Board approved the merger between Perpetual American and Washington-Lee Wednesday, hardly a whimper could be heard from the Virginia league.

Jerome W. Hogge Jr., the new chairman of the Virginia league, signaled a changed philosophy in the organization's view of interstate branching as he discussed the subject later.

"Initially we opposed the interstate branching rules," acknowledged Hogge, "but circumstances have changed. The rules under which we were playing the game have changed," said the league chairman, who is also president of Newport News Savings and Loan Association.

It's clear, Hogge noted, that voluntary interstate mergers may be the only way for some S&Ls to survive. Interstate mergers are probably advisable "when you consider the alternatives that individual savings and loans may suffer if they don't merge," observed Hogge.

What's more, he said, it's apparent that the Bank Board and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. are reluctant to provide financial assistance to facilitate mergers that may, indeed, save some institutions from failing.

"I think if you're in a position of not getting assistance, you will look to a merger partner in another state if you're unable to find one in your own state," Hogge said.

Does that mean that the Virginia Savings and Loan League will adopt formally a different position on interstate mergers?

"It's likely we will," the chairman said.

Meanwhile, as the biggest S&L in the Delmarva region ($1.8 billion in assets and 42 branches), Perpetual American, by virtue of the merger with Washington-Lee, will be a formidable competitor in Virginia.

Although Perpetual American has no immediate plans for additional mergers or acquisitions in Virginia, it will logically pursue those options, says Chairman Thomas J. Owen.

Hogge, for one, fully expects "intense competition" in the marketplace from a "large aggressive S&L like that" but believes it's "healthy" for the consumer, at least.

Meanwhile, Perpetual American apparently is unwilling to risk further erosion of its net worth at this time by merging with the beleaguered Guardian Federal of Silver Spring.

Although the Bank Board and Perpetual American have refused comment, reliable sources have confirmed that federal authorities tried to get Perpetual American to agree to a merger with Guardian, whose net worth has evaporated.

Attempts to get several Maryland associations to take on Guardian without financial assistance have apparently failed and the Bank Board seemingly isn't inclined to approve a merger between Guardian and the District's Washington Federal.

Some observers believe Perpetual American may yet change its mind and take a calculated risk with Guardian. "It would probably cost them between $8 million and $9 million if they took them," one said.

Perpetual already has four offices "grandfathered" in Maryland but cannot expand its branch network in the state.

By acquiring Guardian, it could duplicate its coup in Virginia, where it now has authority to branch anywhere or acquire other institutions.