After nearly three years of losses that put some of them out of business and merged many others into their larger brethren, 1983 may be the ''year of the turnaround'' for US savings-and-loan associations.
But the accuracy of that forecast, say S&L executives, analysts, and other observers of this industry that has been the backbone of the US personal savings and home mortgage system, hangs on two very big ''ifs'':
* If the current trend of declining short-term interest rates continues or rates stabilize at present levels.
* If S&Ls can profitably compete in what is becoming an almost totally deregulated environment, and without paying too much interest on two new accounts they are being allowed to offer. Some S&Ls will pay more then they can afford; others will choose not to compete in the high-stakes game that includes banks and giant financial-services companies, and will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.
''The short answer is, yes, the S&Ls will turn around'' next year, said James Christian, chief economist at the US League of Savings Associations. ''But that's predicated on maintenance of current interest rate levels or a decline.''
''I see 1983 as a transition year, with recovery coming over a two-year time period,'' said Jonathan Gray, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., a brokerage firm. ''Next year will be the industry's first profitable year in two years, but its return on assets will still be subpar. In 1984, the industry will begin to see the historical rates of return it enjoyed in the late 1970s.''
Part of the reason 1984 looks brighter than 1983, he said, is a ''huge'' amount of deposits in 21/2-year ''small saver'' certificates made in the second half of 1981. S&Ls offered about 15 percent interest on these certificates, but they will not come due until the first half of 1984.
On the asset side of the ledger, Mr. Gray noted, the industry has done a good job of getting out from under at least some of the old low-interest mortgages that were bringing in several percentage points of interest less than S&Ls were paying out for deposits such as savings certificates. Some of these mortgages have been ''sold'' on the secondary market to private investors, while others have been renegotiated.
In the future, he added, few S&Ls will be willing to write a 30-year fixed mortgage, unless they can find a way to avoid carrying them on their books, perhaps by selling them on the secondary market. Most institutions will insist on some sort of variable-rate mortgage, even though this will leave them with a smaller share of that market.
''With the new accounts, lower rates, and the dramatic cost-cutting steps most S&Ls have taken over the last year, we are positioned to have a far better year in 1983,'' said Robert H. Steele, chairman and president of the Dry Dock Savings Bank in New York. ''There will be no comparison between '82 and '83.''
Those new accounts, approved in recent weeks by the Depository Institutions Deregulation Committee (DIDC), permit banks and S&Ls to offer whatever interest they can afford on federally insured deposits of at least $2,500. One of the accounts has limited check-writing and transfer privileges. It became available last Tuesday. The other one, to be available Jan. 5, will permit unlimited checking. Both are insured for up to $100,000.
The S&Ls are ''particularly well situated'' to gain an improved market share of deposits through the new acounts, Salomon Brothers partner Henry Kaufman told a recent convention of the US League. However, he added, because of the great competition for savings that has developed in recent years, S&Ls ''should not expect to dominate the market for savings anytime soon.''
Some savings institutions, however, may not be so well situated to handle the new accounts. These are the ones that still have a high proportion of their deposits in low-interest passbook savings accounts. While savings-and-loan institutions have about 19 percent of their retail deposits in these accounts, the figure is 32 percent at the mutual savings banks, Dr. Christian of the US League says. These banks, which are prevalent in the Northeast, could see the costs of their ''core deposits'' rise substantially if many customers switched to the new, DIDC-approved accounts.
In the long run, observers say, how S&Ls handle these accounts and the other new powers they have been given recently will help determine what kind of S&L industry there is in the future.
''We're entering 1983 with a whole range of opportunities to choose from as we decide what we want to be when we grow up,'' observed Paul Wood, executive vice-president of the Arlington Helghts (Ill.) Federal Savings & Loan Association.
Instead of just being a repository for passbook accounts and savings certificates, and a dispenser of home, auto, and personal loans, the ''grown up'' S&L industry will have to compete with large commercial banks and emerging financial-services companies like Merrill Lynch & Co., Shearson/American Express , Sears, Roebuck & Co., J. C. Penney, and even a grocery chain like Kroger. These companies are expanding from their traditional businesses to match many of the services and, in some cases, the accessibility of banks and S&Ls.
In addition to accounts designed to help the industry compete with money market funds, the banking bill Congress passed last summer also opened the way for S&Ls to move into commercial lending, allowing them to use up to 5 percent of their assets for commercial loans in 1983 and 10 percent in 1984 and subsequent years. For a few years at least, most S&Ls are not expected to try reaching those levels.
''It's a rare S&L that has the experience to move into that area too quickly, '' Mr. Wood of Arlington Heights S&L said.
Many of the S&Ls that do enter the commercial market are expected to stick to familiar areas, making loans to real estate developers, home builders, and contractors.
Despite the brighter outlook, experts say, the competition and higher operating costs will result in more S&Ls being forced out of business or into mergers, a development that may be good for consumers.
''There most definitely will be a contraction,'' said Charlene Sullivan, a professor of management at Purdue University. ''But that will be in the interest of the consumer. Serving the consumer today is expensive, and there are economies of scale in the financial services industry that a larger institution can best serve.
''There's no way the consumer could be worse off in this kind of environment.''
Still, she said, if they want to survive without a merger, many of the smaller S&Ls will have to continue working out arrangements with other institutions to share services like marketing, data processing, and automatic teller machines.
But industry-watchers agree that these long-range goals are all less important than the immediate concern over interest rates. Many S&L executives seem to be holding their breath, hoping they can get through the next year or two without another round of high rates to push up the interest they must offer on deposits.
''If we have another explosion in interest rates, all bets are off,'' Dr. Christian said. Where America keeps its money (Billions of dollars, as of September) Traditional banking Checking accounts $232.6 NOW accounts 93.0 Time deposits under $100,000 (except savings certificates, IRAs, Keoghs, and retail repos) 147.1 Savings accounts 342.5 Subtotal $815.2 Retail money market 91-day certificates $10.2 6-month money market certificates 450.3 2 1/2-year small savers certificates 240.4 All-Savers certificates 52.9 Money market funds 220.5 Unit investment trusts 1.3 IRA/Keogh plan deposits 22.3 Retail repurchase agreements 9.4 3- and 6-month T-bills (noncompetitive bids) 34.1 Savings Bonds 67.8 Subtotal $1,109.2 Wholesale money market 3- and 6-month T-bills (competitive bids) $165.3 Overnight repurchase agreements 36.6 Certificates of deposit (over$100,000) 40.8 Bankers acceptances 40.8 Commercial paper 118.7 Eurodollar CDs 83.1 Subtotal $783.6 Grand total $2,708.0 1 Data as of July Source: Donoghue's Money Fund Report .