With loan demand still weak in many areas of the country, more and more bankers are starting to believe that their banks will need to merge with other institutions to achieve meaningful growth.

In a survey of bank executives and officers conducted by the accounting firm Grant Thornton LP and Bank Director magazine, nearly four in 10 respondents said that their banks intend to grow through mergers and acquisitions. In the same survey two years ago, only 23% of bankers surveyed said that M&A was in their plans.

Consolidation could be especially brisk in western states, where 50% of the bankers surveyed said that their growth strategies include traditional M&A, while 24% said they are considering acquisitions of failed banks. The Northeast could be the next-most active region, where 45% of bankers are considering traditional mergers.

To be sure, most bankers still see lending as the No. 1 path to growth. Asked specifically how their banks plan to grow in the future, 86% said "organic loan originations." (Respondents could give more than one answer.) Bankers in the Northeast are the most bullish on lending. Ninety-six percent of bankers surveyed there said that loan originations would drive growth, compared to 80% in the Southeast and 85% in the West.

The survey was sent out this past spring to nearly 2,900 bank chief executives, chief financial officers and audit committee members, and was completed by 379 of them. Sixty-two percent of the banks represented had more than $500 million of assets and 51% were publicly traded.

Not surprisingly, bankers are most wary about the potential impact of the Dodd-Frank Act on their institutions. Asked to name their top concerns over the next 12 months, 91% cited the burden of regulatory reform.

Meanwhile, nearly half (48%) said that the law would be ineffective in detecting broad risks to the financial system. Only 4% said the law would be effective or very effective while 32% said it would be somewhat effective. The rest said it is soon to tell.

More than half of the respondents also said that they will need to either hire additional staff or bring in outside consultants to help meet the compliance demands associated with Dodd-Frank.

Credit quality also remains a key concern. Nearly six in 10 of those surveyed said that they are worried about losses in their commercial real estate loan portfolios, while 32% expressed concern about weakness in their commercial-and-industrial books.

As a result, 70% of bankers said that they now conduct ongoing stress tests and another 13% said they intend to start doing so this year.

Other key findings:

• Slightly more than half of the bankers said that they are assessing their mortgage-servicing procedures in light of recent federal investigations of the nation's largest servicers.

• About one-third said that they plan to increase hiring over the next six months, while 16% said they intend to cut staff.

• Nearly one-fourth of the bankers surveyed remain concerned about losses in their residential-loan portfolios, though only 8% are worried consumer loans are souring.

The majority of bankers surveyed expect the economy to either improve or stay the same in coming months. Thirty-nine percent of the respondents said that they expect the economy to improve over the next six months, up from 15% the last time the question was posed in August 2010, while 52% expect no change. Only 9% said that they think the economy will get worse.

Bankers in the West were most positive about their local economies, with 53% seeing improvement.