Fed 'running out of excuses' for zero rates

Why it's hard to find fault with Friday's jobs numbers
Why it's hard to find fault with Friday's jobs numbers   

Angela Hills gets a close-up look at the U.S. jobs market and generally likes what she sees.

A bustling hiring climate is good for her business, and current conditions are working out well for Hills, executive vice president at Cielo, a global employment recruiting firm that works across a variety of companies.

"Our business is on the uptick," Hills said in an interview shortly after the Labor Department reported Friday that the economy added 257,000 new jobs in January. The better-than-expected data meshed with what Hills said she has been observing on a daily basis.

Read MoreBetter news than expected for January jobs

"We are seeing increases in demand for key positions and roles," she said. "We're seeing growth with new launches of products. Our clients are asking us to hire talent in terms of growth strategies."

Over the past three months, businesses have added more than 1 million jobs, according to upwardly revised numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though still anemic by historical standards—growth was close to 4 percent the last time the unemployment rate was this low, in mid-2008—wages rose month over month at a faster pace than anytime during the post-financial crisis recovery.

While the numbers generated mostly applause on Wall Street, they also raised another question: When will the Federal Reserve stop acting like the economy is in crisis?

The central bank has been holding its short-term interest rate target near zero for more than six years, with expectations that it will begin hiking rates, incrementally, later in the year.

Key job stats

Category
Number
Jobless rate 5.70%
Real jobless rate 11.30%
For college grads 2.80%
Jobs added 257,000
Jobs, last 3 months 1.009M
Retail jobs added 46,000
Construction 39,000
Health care 38,000
Bureau of Labor Statistics

Some economists questioned the lower-for-longer strategy after Friday's nonfarm payrolls report, insisting that the Fed act now.

Read MoreFed's Lockhart: Inflation, wages still 'worrisome'

"The Fed is fast running out of excuses," Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group, titled a note he sent after the data release. "The Fed's game of rationalizing zero interest rates has no touch with reality," he added later in the analysis.

Current market expectations are for the central bank to hike around mid-June. Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Michelle Meyer and BMO senior economist Sal Guatieri both issued reports Friday that projected a September liftoff date.

Policymakers have cited the low level of inflation as reason to keep policy accommodative, but the consistently improving jobs picture is raising doubts about how long that will last.

Read MoreJobs report leaves GOP grasping for ammo

If the Fed doesn't actually change policy soon, it may at least start tipping its hand more aggressively.

"We keep trying to tell everyone that the U.S. economy is enjoying a period of unusual strength, maybe now people will believe us," Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said in a note. "Employment growth is clearly on fire and it is beginning to put upward pressure on wage growth. The Fed can't wait much longer in that environment."